We are not a site that is well versed in the subgenre of romantic fantasy. I am absolutely positive that there are hundreds of fantastic fantasy romance stories that we have never heard of. And yet, in our time reviewing the larger fantasy landscape, we have come across a number of beautifully heartful, and catastrophically awful, romances. So, if you are looking for a list of the definitive best paranormal romance stories to check off your list, I would recommend you look elsewhere. But, if you like our content and are looking for a wonderful romance story, or a hilariously bad take on relationships for Valentine’s Day – we have you covered.
Quill To Live’s Top Five Fantasy Romances
5) The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay– Lions is one of the top Quill to Live books as a whole, but it has a unique and wonderful take on romance. While there is no singular romance plot to elevate and speak about, the entire story and characters are all motivated by their love of their partners and family. It’s a story about the multifaceted power of love for both good and bad. The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just heart-achingly beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what are the many forms love can take?” and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in are often hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read. Just… don’t grab it first if you are only looking for positive vibes this Valentine’s Day.
4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune– Here comes The House In The Cerulean Sea again, making its way onto yet another Quill To Live list. It’s well-deserved, though, thanks to T.J. Klune’s positively charming romance between two of the book’s main characters. Cerulean follows Linus Baker, a corporate drone/caseworker at the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. When he’s sent on an oddball assignment, Linus arrives at the eponymous house and meets a ragtag bunch of misunderstood magical youth and their quirky caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. The romance and love that radiates throughout Cerulean isn’t found just in the central romance. It’s also found in the love that Linus develops for the children he’s sent to (presumably) care for. If you want a believable and heartwarming romance, Cerulean has you covered. If you want to explore love in many different ways beyond the cookie-cutter romance, Cerulean delivers that, too.
3) The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold – Chalion is a slow burn that you won’t be able to finish in a day, but is very much worth your time and worthy of a top pick in the romance category. The book tells of an estranged nobleman returning home to the place of his youth and becoming a tutor for a cursed household. Fortunately, the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasant to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. Much of this revolves around a growing romance between two of the leads. I enjoy how there is no love at first sight and you get to see the characters slowly build the relationship brick by brick. The prose in this novel is also gorgeous, which always gets me in the romance mood. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound, wonderful, or sometimes hilarious like this one:
“Men write poems to the objects of our desire in order to lure them closer.” “How practical. In that case, you’d think men would write more poems to ladies’ private parts.” “The ladies would hit us. Lips are a safe compromise, being as it were a stand-in or stepping-stone to the greater mysteries.”
2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – To me, The Night Circus is what I always wanted Romeo and Juliet to be. Romeo and Juliet is purported to be one of the best love stories of all time, but when you think about it, it’s actually about two horny teenagers who knew each other for three days and then killed themselves because of their horrific communication skills. The Night Circus, on the other hand, tells a good version of this epic romance. Two rival magicians from different schools battle it out over years in a traveling circus of wonders through an arcane contest and slowly fall in love. On top of the epic premise, the prose is downright gorgeous and the plot has enough twists and turns to tip the book towards a thriller without ever becoming a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s one of the most popular fantasies of the modern era for a very good reason, and if you haven’t read it you should.
1) Swordheart by T Kingfisher – I only actually read Swordheart last year, but as you can see it made a very powerful impact on me. This book simply makes me happy. It’s a low key realistic relationship, in the form of a magical sword dating a housemaid. These characters are just so warm and nice and relatable that it is so easy to insert yourself into one of their shoes. Plus, as an added bonus the book is laugh-out-loud funny from the first line. While some of the romances on this list are aspirational ballads of the greatest love stories of all time, this is the one that felt spiritually closest to the story of how my wife and I fell in love, and I could read it a hundred times and never get bored.
Quill To Live’s Worst Five Fantasy Romances
5) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – I greatly enjoy Senlin Ascends, but the set up for a portion of the story is “Senlin, a teacher who married his student, loses his wife in a crowd and spends multiple books looking and pining for her.” I always dislike the teacher and student couple trope; it always feels a bit predatory. Benching the wife, Marya, for a large portion of the story offscreen does not do a lot to make her a compelling motivation for Senlin’s journey. However, I will say that when we eventually do get to spend some time with Marya in the later books I dislike her, and the relationship, a lot less. But let’s be honest, we are all hoping Senlin ends up with Edith, the first mate of his skyship, at the end of the series.
4) Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff– Kristoff has always had some trouble with romance subplots, but his treatment of his protagonist, Mia, in book two of the Nevernight trilogy was a straight-up plot hole. I will avoid naming the other half of this relationship to keep you pure of spoilers, but essentially Mia falls in love with an antagonist of book one for no real perceivable reason other than plot convenience. The massive pile of bodies standing between these two people coming together only comes up a few times and then is swept under the rug. It feels like a badly done rewrite where Kristoff decided at the last minute to shake up the romantic landscape and just threw a freaking dart at a board when choosing the new pairing.
3) Night Angel by Brent Weeks – I feel like this one is pretty self-explanatory if you have read it. If you haven’t, don’t. We have now moved into the territory of romance crimes so grievous that they actually somewhat ruin the books. In this case, we have Gary Stu boy loves Mary Sue girl who is too pure for this cruel, cruel world. The story is about a boy who becomes the world’s greatest assassin to protect a childhood crush, and wants to murder half of the population of a continent because someone was once mean to her. There is also a much greater romance crime at the end of the series involving a metaphorical cursed BDSM sex collar, but I won’t go into much more detail in case you want to read this bad life choice. Week’s Lightbringer has slightly better romance subplots, in that they aren’t agonizing to read, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
2) Battle Ground by Jim Butcher – Battle Ground was easily the worst book we read of 2020, and we will be coming out with a more in-depth review of its sins in the future. For now, let it be known that one of the reasons this book is so offensive is the treatment of a main female character/romance for plot convenience that has been built up over 15 books. She just yeets out a window in the most contrived possible way to the point where it absolutely murdered any forward momentum I had in the story. This is on top of the fact that Butcher’s treatment of women, both in romances and in general, has been highly questionable in multiple instances over the series’ many installments. The entire thing is starting to read like an incel’s badly directed erotic fantasy, and Battle Ground was miserable enough that I finally stepped off the Dresden train of misery.
1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I don’t need to contextualize this one, I know you all have read this book, Denna and Kvothe absolutely suck. 99% of the problems in this story can be traced back to the fact that these two characters never have one functional conversation. It is a comedy of errors that isn’t even slightly funny. Neither of them are likable characters in the slightest when it comes to their treatment of the other. The Felurian scene in book two was like being violently punched in the face with poor writing choices while out for an otherwise enjoyable literary stroll. Neither Denna nor Kvothe has any qualities the other admires yet somehow they claim each is the ultimate catch. I enjoy the Kingkiller series, mostly for its undeniably beautiful prose, but each time I return to it, I need to shut off the parts of my mind that respond to romance and love so that it doesn’t murder the rest of my brain in an attempt to stop me from reading further.
So long, 2020, and good riddance! The year is finally coming to a close and hopefully, 2021 will be better in many regards. But, there are a few things left to do before we can put the nail in the metaphorical coffin, like talk about the best books of the year. This year we managed to collectively read over 100 books published in 2020. From that large number, we have identified our top 20 reads of the year. This was the year of novellas for us, with a number of standout shorts deeply impressing our review team. So much so, that we decided to make a separate top Novellas list which will be coming next week (12/8). In addition, the competition for the top ten spots was extremely tight. There were a ton of absolutely stand out phenomenal books this year, but we did think the average quality of books overall in 2020 felt a little lower compared to previous years. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2019 into this list, and December 2020 will roll into 2021’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the best stories of 2020.
20) The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky – As always, Tchaikovsky surprises and delights with his interesting take on how life evolved on Earth. The Doors of Eden is packed full of imaginative Earths, creative species, and clever science that asks many interesting questions. On top of a lot of scientific answers, the book also is full of fascinating people. The characters, and their relationships, provide a relatable canvas on which to project yourself. Finally, Eden’s unique narrative structure tickled our fancy with its alternative timelines and clever ideas about how they might work. If you are looking for a story with both brains and heart, you need not look further. You can find our full review here.
19) Noumenon Ultra by Marina J. Lostetter – A fitting end to a wildly imaginative and deeply thoughtful trilogy that should be getting more eyes than it has. Lostetter has clearly grown as a writer, bringing an impressive sense of scope and even stronger theming. Her writing is heartfelt and really conveys a strong sense of character and humanity even through her vignette narrative style. As a finale, Ultra is a blast and does everything you would hope by pushing the envelope, and tying up remaining threads. I anticipated this book greatly, and Lostetter sailed past those expectations. Seriously, if you haven’t picked up the series yet, you’re missing out and should really get to it for this wonderful sunset. You can find our full review here.
18) Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – A strange and quiet novel about a man stuck in a maze, Piranesi evokes the same calm feeling I get when standing on a beach and looking out to sea. Much like the ocean, it’s tranquil yet thrilling, beautiful yet scary, and much deeper than it looks. Piranesi has both an interesting narrative structure and a strong opinion on the best way to go through life. It argues that we owe it to ourselves, and the world around us, to take more time to connect with the places where we live. This theme is very compelling, and after finishing Piranesi I found myself staring into the night sky wondering if I was really living my life to the best of my abilities. Any book that can give me an introspective doom spiral is a winner in my opinion, A+. You can find our full review here.
17) The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood – The Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. I read The Unspoken Name back in January, and I still remember a number of scenes, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. We already praised the book as one of our top dark horse debuts of 2020, and the hype for the sequel is big. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into that reader’s psyche. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you to, you should do so now. You can find our full review here.
16) How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It by K.J. Parker – I am always looking for fantasy books that feature heroes with atypical skills and strengths. Anything to get away from the standard formula of “hero who is great with a sword/magic.” Parker manages to scratch that itch for a second year in a row with his Siege series. The first book makes a war hero out of an engineer, and this second one does it with an actor. On top of having original characters, the themes of How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It all delightfully revolve around the theater and acting. The fantasy genre would be a better and brighter place if we had more books like this pushing the imagination of who or what heroes are. If you are looking for a fun and humorous novel off the beaten path, look no further. You can find our full review here.
15) When Jackals Storm the Walls by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Well, here we are – my annual “scream at the sky about Song of Shattered Sands” event. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out thanks to the release of When Jackals Storm the Walls) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands. When Jackals Storm The Walls once again delivers a lovingly written epic story that never lets up and doesn’t let you down. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era of fantasy.You can find our full review here.
14) Docile by K.M. Szpara – How much more can I say about this book that hasn’t been covered in the review and not one, but two, dark horse spotlights. Szpara is incredibly good at characters and really sells you on who they are before they are ground up by the system and re-molded. He wields subtlety with panache and expertise, knowing when to show you where he stabbed you in the heart, and knowing when to hide what he stabbed you with. I honestly can’t get the romance between these two broken men out of my head. Szpara shows how anyone can fool themselves into thinking they are behind the mask, when in reality there is only the mask. I’m ready for more romance, especially in Szpara’s deft hands. You can find our full review here.
13) How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge by K. Eason – Last year I screwed up by letting Eason’s How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse slip by without a review. If I had read it, it definitely would have made our top books of the year. So I made sure to prioritize reading the sequel this year, and I was rewarded for my efforts. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge is a fantastic follow-up that takes the foundation that book one built and uses it as a jumping off point to expand the scope of the story. All of the things I liked about book one are still here, with a bigger cast and more character growth. If this book had been a little bit bigger, longer, or more comprehensive, it would have easily cracked our top 10 of the year. But, even with its shorter story, How the Multiverse Got Its Revengeis one of the best books of 2020. You can find our full review here.
12) Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth is a stunning and impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. In her second book, Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure, and yet both styles had excellent prose. This prose and style change is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can find our full review here.
11) A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik – What do a protagonist who is so overpowered she somehow loops back to being weak, a Hogwarts that feels like it was designed by Lovecraft, and a frightening amount of exposition dumps all have in common? They apparently make up the ingredients for a fantastic story. A Deadly Education wins major points from me for two core reasons. One, it’s a story about a magical school with a lovable cast of students and eldritch horrors that will give you nightmares. Two, it tells its story in such an unconventional way that despite the fact that it is borrowing a number of time-tested fantasy/horror elements from popular series, it still feels incredibly fresh and original. In addition, while I have always enjoyed Naomi Novik, she seems to be only getting better. The prose and pacing in A Deadly Education are on point and seem noticeably better than other novels of hers I have recently read. All of this comes together to make an incredible package that almost any reader will love. You can find our full review here.
10) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Bennett is a regular staple on our top books of the year lists, and 2020 is no exception. Shorefall is a wonderful, scary book full of beautiful moments, happy and sad. The protagonists are clever people that I never get tired of. They are such an interesting mix to read about and their problem solving is a proxy for Bennett’s wonderful ideas and a hopeful future for humanity. Shorefall is also the fastest paced book of the year. The action is invigorating, as the cast you love pits their wiles against an eldritch god with little chance of victory. Events bombard the reader as they struggle to cope with what is happening, and Bennett never gives you enough time to truly recover from his latest reveal before he hits you with another one. Shorefall is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it. You can find our full review here.
9) Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots – If you’re bored of superheroes, you have two choices in front of you: move on from the genre or embrace supervillains. Luckily, for those who chose the latter, Walschots has the perfect novel for your super powered woes. There are so many beautiful layers within Hench it’s really hard to pick the ones to highlight, but if I had to choose one, it’s character. Anna Tremodolov’s journey from temp hench to dreaded right hand woman of the most feared supervillain is an absolute delight. Walschots is incredible at making events in Anna’s life feel important to her growth, and her quest for accountability. While Anna is the bright sun at the center of the system, the characters that revolve around her are titans in their own right, imbued with a certain je ne sais quoi that made my heart sing. I mean from name and power reveals to standout character moments to highlighting the strength of normal people in their fight against the heroes that have destroyed their lives through collateral damage, Walschots makes it look easy. Not only that, she makes being bad look good, and I’m here for it. You can find our full review here.
8) The Light of All that Falls by James Islington – While The Light of All that Falls was technically published in 2019, it came out in December and I refuse to miss an opportunity to talk about this incredible epic fantasy. It’s the third and final book in a fantasy trilogy about time travel, and it’s so cool! Light does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor books, and has a strong plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture. I realized as I read the ending of the book that Islington must have started there, and built the rest of the book around where he wanted to end. There are so many well laid plots and plans that come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. The series also has some really interesting ideas around time travel and spends a good portion of the story debating which theory of how time travel would work has the best merit. The Licanius Trilogy manages to be something very new and different while hitting every note that an epic fantasy lover would want in a story. It is no surprise to me that Orbit picked up Islington after he self published book one of this series. It has been clear from the start that he is going places and his books are ones to flag for your to-read pile. You can find our full review here.
7) Network Effect by Martha Wells – Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels earns her top marks in our list this year. The entire Murderbot series is just great and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out. You can find our full review here.
The reviewers of The Quill To Live had a lot of debate over the placement of the top 6 books, but eventually settled on this order. Suffice it to say, all six of these books are incredible and there are strong cases for all of them to be book of the year.
6) Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler – Ashes of the Sun has enormous depth, and the book’s power comes from all the small details. Nothing about this book is surface level; everything has been meticulously considered and thought out, breathing a huge amount of life into the world and characters. The world is fascinating, the clash of magic and technology is easy and intuitive for the reader to grasp, and neither side is painted as a black and white villain. Every part of this world just aggressively pulls you in and makes you want more. My personal favorite thing about Ashes is our sibling protagonists, Gyre and Maya. Both are complex, relatable POVs that go through an enormous amount of growth, and you can very clearly understand how they were shaped by their different upbringings. Most importantly, their relationship with each other is complicated, interesting, and believable. Gyre and Maya have the perfect balance of love, respect, and distrust of one another and it’s like falling into an immersion riptide. I was a fan of Wexler’s older work, but Ashes is a noticeable step up in worldbuilding, characterization, and general prose. I have earmarked this as one of my most anticipated series in years and I highly recommend that you don’t sleep on this one. Come see what all the buzz is about in this climactic first book in the Burningblade & Silvereye series. You can find our full review here.
5) Sorcery of a Queen by Brian Naslund – The excellence of Sorcery of a Queen is honestly flabbergasting. This book does so many things right that it straight up blew my mind. It has incredible characters, exciting action, deep and original worldbuilding, a gripping plot, a compelling antagonist, great themes, excellent pacing, strong character growth, and a level of polish and inclusivity that made me positively vibrate with happiness. Sorcery is the second book in Naslund’s trilogy, and I accidentally slept on his debut novel (Blood of an Exile) last year. After eventually picking the first book up, I realized what a colossal mistake I had made and jumped on Sorcery the second I could get my hands on it, hoping to find that lightning struck twice. Sorcery broke every single one of my high expectations to tell a story that was nothing short of wonderful. Usually, when I review a book I like to talk about if it’s best for readers who focus on characters, plot, worlds, or ideas. It is very rare that I come across a book that I can unilaterally recommend to all of those people, and this is one such occasion. You can find our full review here.
4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Once we finished T.J. Klune’s ultra-charming novel of found family, whether it would make this list was never really a question. Instead, we had to determine exactly where this near-perfect story belonged on our best of 2020 list. And in the top five feels like a perfect place for this heartwarming tale. Cerulean Sea follows Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. Linus is sent on assignment to an orphanage run by the eccentric Arthur Parnassus. Parnassus nurtures some of the strangest magical youth Linus has ever encountered, including a wyvern, a were-pomeranian, and the antichrist. The jarring synopsis threw me for a loop, too, but then I read the book. Cerulean Sea brought happy tears to my eyes on more than one occasion, and Linus’ journey of self-discovery as he “investigates” Parnassus’ home is just…beautiful. That’s the best word to describe this novel, earning it a coveted spot on this list. You can find our full review here.
3) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – If there has been a book that has occupied my thoughts ever since I read it this year, it has to be Unconquerable Sun. Its high concept premise of “gender bent Alexander the Great in Outer Space” is merely a crumb from the seven course meal prepared by Kate Elliott. I don’t think I was prepared for the abundance of detail, culture, character, politics, commentary, action and emotion that Elliott has wrapped up in this novel. Everything is turned to eleven in stunning glory, allowing the reader to become consumed by the heroism of Sun and her band of companions. If there were a memory wipe machine, I’d probably fry my brain using it so I could read this book with fresh eyes again and again. If you’re looking for a space opera epic that feels new and exciting and instills a sense of wonder and curiosity that is still willing to be fun and explosive, look no further Unconquerable Sun is calling your name. You can find our full review here.
2) The Worst of All Possible Worlds by Alex White – The quality of each book in The Salvagers series has noticeably improved, and it started at a pretty high mark. The Worst of All Possible Worlds is a finale that any writer could envy and delivers an explosive knockout punch to any reader who picks it up. White’s author voice and prose are explosive and vivid, and Worlds is as exciting and pulse-pounding as an out of control rollercoaster that is on fire. This book made me feel damn alive. If you are not crouched over the pages reading while holding the book in a vice grip, I am going to recommend someone check you for a pulse. Also, the emotional payoff in Worlds is like winning a feeling lottery. There are so, many, good, moments of heart touchingly beautiful human connection, love, despair, and everything in between. White is really good at rewarding readers for putting the time into watching their characters grow and evolve, and Worlds is a hell of a closer and should be used as a case study in how to end a series. I have zero criticisms of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, and it’s so good it might elevate The Salvagers to one of my highest recommended series ever. I said way back in my review that I was sure this would be one of the best books of the year, and I was right. You can find our full review here.
1) The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie – While there was some fierce discussion over these top six slots, there was one book we could all agree on that was a stand out masterpiece. While our choice makes us feel like a very basic b*tch SFF site, sometimes things are popular for a reason. The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie is the Quill to Live best book of 2020. As I originally mentioned in my review (where I correctly guessed that this would be the best book of the year), I don’t want to say too much about Trouble as it’s best to read it, and all of Abercrombie’s work, with as little knowledge as possible. What you should know is the book emotionally feels like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had. The characters are masterpieces of writing that feel so very alive. You want to help them, you want to solve their troubles and keep them safe. But you can’t, nothing can keep them safe from the horrible events that Abercrombie takes them through. The Trouble With Peace is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is the best written and most powerful book I read in 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.You can find our full review here.
-A note from the QTL team: Happy 2020! We wish you the best of all holidays from our families to yours. We typically do not ask our readers for assistance in promoting our work, but as we spend an enormous amount of time working on our end of year wrap up, any shares and posts of this list are greatly appreciated if you liked it. We hope you have a wonderful 2021 and we look forward to showing you our new list next year!
IT’S THE MOST WONDERFULLLL TIME OF THE YEARRRRRR. Namely, the time when we get to discuss our Dark Horse books. This year, each of us picked six to ten debuts to read, and if you caught our H1 round-up, you’ll know we did a pretty good job of keeping up with 2020’s veritable onslaught of debut books.
But instead of an H2 round-up, we’re closing out our 2020 Dark Horse initiative with a list of our favorite debuts of the year. We each picked two debut titles that stuck out from the rest. If you are looking for fresh new content, ideas, and faces for 2020, this list should provide you with the authors that really made an entrance this year.
Andrew – My dark horses were a real mixed bag this year. Some of my picks ended up being my most disappointing reads of 2020, but there were also a few that made it to my top echelon of the year. Of the eight dark horses I read, The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, and Nophek Gloss, by Essa Hansen, were the two that rose to the top.
The Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. While the pacing was a little uneven, it was definitely one of the most memorable books I read in 2020. I read The Unspoken Name back in January and I still remember a number of senses, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. The series also feels like it is going somewhere and did book one a great job of building up excitement for the sequel novels. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into your reader. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you too you should do so now. You can find our review here.
Nophek Gloss was also super fresh. Clearly, there is a theme on why I liked certain debuts this year. But, while Gloss definitely did a great job of throwing some fun new science fiction concepts at me, it was the characters and their story that brought me around. I have always been a huge sucker for beautiful, quiet, personal journeys in a science fiction setting. Essa Hansen’s book shows us that we are more than our trauma. Gloss is such a weirdly hopeful story, despite the fact that it is painted with a profound amount of tragedy and loss. It reminded me that I am kinda tired of reading about these dystopian futures and that reading a story with a light at the end of the tunnel does a lot for someone who is living their own dystopia. Nophek Gloss is a beautiful book, check it out. You can find our review here.
Cole – Man, I picked some stinkers this year. Thank goodness for Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe and Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars (Honorable mention to Shveta Tahkrar’s Star Daughter, a fun YA adventure chock-full of Indian mythology).They were easily my two favorite dark horse picks, rising above the other four on my list. Both books have me giddy at the prospect of more writing from these fantastic new authors.
Elatsoe emerged as my favorite dark horse of the year. Darcie Little Badger’s magical murder mystery tour (as I lovingly called it in my review) tells an intriguing tale that falls somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Protagonist Ellie (short for Elatsoe) sets out to solve her cousins murder using her unique ability to commune with the spirits of the dead. There’s a whole lot to love about Elatsoe, but my favorite aspect was the constant presence of Native American mythology. Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she brings elements of her culture to life through her prose. She has experience writing for Marvel, and Elatsoe shows she’s got long-form fiction chops, too. I can’t wait to see where Little Badger takes us next. You can find our review here.
Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars reads like a video game speed run. Just as you’ve surpassed one checkpoint, another passes in a blur as antihero Michael Kingman navigates the treacherous political landscape of this unique fantasy world. Indeed, the speed can at times be a hindrance in Kingdom, but the story is well-suited to a quickfire pace, and jumping from one event to the next at lightning speed emulates the scattershot magic of Kingman’s world, where overusing spellcraft can eliminate some of your memories. The Kingdom of Liars is an all-around solid debut (praised by Brandon Sanderson himself), and the follow-up is slated for 2021. Martell is one to watch. You can find our review here.
Alex – I don’t want to brag or anything but I was incredibly pleased with most of the debuts I read this year. Not only were their first books a treat to read, but all of those authors have an abundance of potential to keep readers hooked for years to come. I for one will be picking up the future works of Micaiah Johnson, Lindsay Ellis, and Premee Mohamed with absolute glee. Honestly, there was only one bad book out of my picks, and I’d rather not relive that experience if I can avoid it. The following are two of my favorites from 2020.
I have never read a romance book, or a book where the romance was the central storyline. Thankfully, Szpara’s Docile was able to lure me with the promise of analyzing the effects of capitalism through the main relationship. Quickly though I became enthralled with the romance and very much wanted these two men to work out their issues and find some humanity within each other. Szpara is an enchanting writer that knows when to be subtle and knows when to sound the air horn when it comes to his characters’ relationship with the themes he wishes to tease out. Even though it feels like I read it two years ago (thanks 2020), it still sticks with me and I can’t wait to see what Szpara has in store for us. You can find our review here.
Oh my god, did Natalie Zina Walschots blow me away with Hench. There are a few decent deconstructions of the superhero genre out there, but it is rare that it is done with such love and passion for the supervillains. Walschots offers a fresh look at a genre that is growing increasingly complacent and repetitive, and delivers it with a poignant passion. The writing is top notch, making the characters come alive in human and fantastic ways. Walschots ingrains you in Anna’s life, following her from her lowly days as a temp hench to the right hand woman of the top supervillain and it’s glorious. Spreadsheets as a superpower never looked so good, and felt so fun and powerful. The action scenes are few, but impactful and extremely character oriented. If you love superheroes, or are tired of the genre and want a fresher look, this is the book for you. You can find our review here.
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this has been a difficult year for most people. Thus, we wanted to get a jumpstart on getting amazing books into your hands in order to find a little joy. Instead of waiting until November to give you all a list of the best books of 2020, we decided to compile a small list of dynamite novels from the first half of 2020. A book charcuterie board, if you will. So, if 2020 has you down and you need a high-quality read – look no further than these books. In no particular order, here are our top six reads from January to June 2020:
1) Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett – Coming in hot on the heels of Foundryside, Shorefall is a perfect second book to The Founders trilogy. The magic system continues to be one of the most innovative and exciting I have read in years, and Bennett’s flair for action, imagination, and horror are on full display. As a bonus, the themes of the book revolve around connecting people from different POV to make the world a better place and finding hope when all looks lost – a perfect book for current events.
2) The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – TJ Klune penned one of the most joyful books I’ve ever read. The House in the CeruleanSea follows by-the-books caseworker Linus Baker, who audits orphanages that house magical youth. When he’s sent on a particularly difficult assignment, Linus finds himself embraced by an unlikely family of talented magical children and their quirky caretaker. To read this book is to smile through every page, laugh along with the witty humor, and shed an occasional tear. Klune crafts perfectly timed, subtle, emotional, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose. Through it, he creates characters that you truly come to love over the course of the novel. The House in the Cerulean Sea is unquestionably one of the year’s top books, and everyone should read this feel-good adventure as soon as possible.
3) Network Effect by Martha Wells – I just really didn’t think Network Effect was going to be such a success. I am so used to authors cashing in on popular IPs and writing terrible spin-offs that I was jaded, and Network Effect is anything but that. This novel sequel to the popular Murderbot novellas is the perfect transition between the two mediums. Network Effect takes everything good about the short punchy novellas and expands the world, cast, and plot without losing any of the character depth. On top of everything, Network sets the stage for a big and exciting plot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.
4) Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott – Usually one-sentence ideas like “gender-bent Alexander the Great in outer space” sound cool (and this one sounds amazing) but fall flat beyond initial expectations. Elliott, however, runs a marathon with it and at breakneck speed. The amount of world-building, character development, and political intrigue that goes into this first novel of a series is astounding. Elliott also plays very heavily with her narrative style that makes you hooting and hollering for a form of propaganda. It’s a genuinely fun read that blew away my expectations and should definitely be on your list of to-reads for the year.
5) The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo – I have read so many Asian inspired fantasies about slighted royals getting even in the last six months. Yet somehow, this novella packed more character and spirit into its short hundred pages than any of the other full-sized novels I read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the perfect balance of familiar and original. It’s a short read with great pacing and sets up a world that Nghi will continue to explore in subsequent novellas. I was so impressed with this novella that it managed to edge out a lot of the other full novels from 2020 – but it isn’t the only one.
6) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – We still need to get around to reviewing this one, much to our shame. Prosper’s Demon has a very specific story to tell, and it tells it flawlessly. Parker has an agenda and an argument to be made, and he utilizes this short story to execute both with a flawless flourish. It isn’t the best or most fun story I have ever read, but holy cow does Parker nail his themes and characters. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s only like 80 pages long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you can read it in an hour.
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.
Welcome back to another end of the year list! 2019 is rumbling to a close, which means it’s once again time to talk about the best books of the year. This year was a tough one for us. With our expanded set of reviewers, we got through a much larger number of new books and had a much harder time cutting them down to a top list. The competition was hot for every single spot this year, and our list is coming out a little later than usual due to all the discussions we had about where to rank everything. This year, the competition was so tight that we chose to include 22 books plus a few honorable mentions. As always, in order to get this list out in a timely manner before the end of the year, we have rolled December of 2018 into this list, and December 2019 will be rolled into 2020’s list. Without further ado, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2019.
Honorable Mentions – Check out the reviews in the links:
22) The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull – A more personal book that takes a large event and brings it home in ways that most first contact stories don’t examine. There are no interstellar battles, no open threats of planetwide war, just three islands, the people that live on them, and the aliens that occupy them. It is an intensely close look at the effects of colonialism in its many forms and how it affects the relationships of those under the boot, literally and metaphorically. While major events rarely happen within the POV of a character, the rumors and feelings of those events bleed into the narrative, coloring the reactions of everyone in different ways. Turnbull makes every interaction feel deliberate, earned, and uncomfortable. He provokes the reader to think about the events of the book. If you want an intimate and contemplative character-based science fiction story, see if you can learn The Lesson.
21) System Failure by Joe Zieja – A surprisingly deep ending to an extremely humorous trilogy with a ton of excellent character development. With the publication of his third book, Zieja seems to be done with writing books for the near future–a damn shame, if you ask me. He has demonstrated that he is capable of creating thoughtful commentary and entertaining jokes at the same time, and I consider the Epic Failure trilogy to be one of the best satires I have ever read. Now that book three has stuck the landing, you can be reassured that these books are definitely worth your time. Unless you hate laughter, fun, and joy, and in that case, I am not really sure what to recommend you read.
20) Middlegame by Seanan McGuire – Middlegame was a book that flew under my radar for a while. In retrospect, I don’t know how the description didn’t jump off the back of the book at me. The book takes place in a near-future or the alt-universe United States, it’s a little unclear exactly what year the book starts in due to the fact it’s almost entirely about time travel and manipulating the flow of time. In this version of the USA, the magical practice of alchemy is real and there is a secret society of alchemists that have been pulling the strings of government and world development for centuries. The book follows a pair of alchemically created twins as they try to subvert the murderous intent of their maker and find a way to create a future for themselves. The time travel mechanic is handled fantastically, the magic feels truly mystical, and the singsong nature of the prose ties in well with the initial conceit of Asphodel Baker hiding her magic in children’s books. We highly recommend you give it a try.
19) The Killing Light by Myke Cole – A stunning finish to an already fantastic series. Myke Cole digs deep offering a sobering but impactful piece of revolution and identity. Cole maintains a loyalty to his characters through to the end, providing rich character growth inside a bombastic action-filled trilogy. The excellent pacing will keep you on the edge of your seat, with a steady but explosive ramping of the stakes in the final act. There is barely a dull moment, but Cole manages to squeeze in the occasional introspective paragraph to develop the characters. While the prose may not be overly detailed, it conveys a range of atmospheres that sell the setting and the fight ahead for Heloise and her compatriots. If you haven’t read the others in the series, this book is worth picking them up for.
18) The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – Leckie’s first fantasy novel is a slow burn and odd book to pick up, but definitely worth the time. Leckie performs an amazing juggling act by building a new world, exploring the power of language, and the nature of authority in a gripping tale of succession. There is nothing I like more than deconstructing a genre, and Leckie does it with admirable finesse. The human characters are not much to write home about but serve the story in interesting ways that don’t betray who they are. Gods and kings are at each other’s mercy in this robust world where faith is a contract, and not fulfilling it has vast repercussions. If you’re looking for a book that cooks its elements like a stew, rewarding you with a satisfying finish after a deliberate and planned preparation, then look no further than The Raven Tower.
17) For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones – Another of our Dark Horses, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic fantasy novel. It has an engrossing world, a fast-paced plot, and a smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. The protagonists are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free-time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. While I wouldn’t say this book reinvented the wheel, I think it is both a stunning tribute to old school quest fantasy and a fresh and original take on some classic fantasy tropes. This book is worth your time.
16) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – A powerful debut from a new author with a stunning voice, Gideon the Ninth is a story I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. A story with endless ambition and complication, Muir’s debut built a window into her very chaotic and fascinating mind. It takes a clever artist to combine necromancy and a science fiction setting, and yet Muir’s fascinating world seems as effortless as it is captivating. Her universe is both cool and believable, though not necessarily a place I want to live. Although her twists were somewhat unsurprising, her characters were bundles of mystery and watching them evolve over the course of the book was wonderful. Thank god the second book comes out early next year after the ridiculous cliffhanger of an ending in book one. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly.
15) This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – I didn’t expect a book about time-traveling super agents fighting a time war on opposite sides to be so…romantic. This Is How You Lose The Time War is a short book that feels so much bigger than it is. The ideas it contains and the relationship it explores expand in weight and depth far past what the short run time should allow. Gladstone and El-Mohtar have created a poetic romance of a sci-fi novella and luxuriate in it. Their prose is lavish but fitting and never feels overwrought despite always toeing the line of excessive. I was moved by this story to a depth that I have difficulty getting across in words and cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to experience the story Red and Blue live within its pages.
14) A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy by Alex White – Alex White is on a roll, making two of our best-of-the-year lists in a row with his next installment of TheSalvagers series. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy improved upon its predecessor on almost every possible metric. The action is more intense, the world is more exciting, and the characters are more lovable. Given the fact that I already loved book one, Bad Deal’s improvements are all the more impressive and I have no doubt this series is shaping up to be a strong recommendation for any reader. The Quill to Live reviewers will always be drawn toward books that do a good job blending fantasy and science fiction, and White has a real talent for it. These novels are a mind exploding stream of cool ideas and blockbuster set pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat. My final thoughts on the book are that there better be more than three books in this series because I am nowhere near done with the plot, world, and cast and want to spend as much time as I can among White’s wonderful creation.
13) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Bancroft’s incredible prose, delightful sense of humor, and mysterious storytelling are back again with the third installment of his The Books of Babel Series. The Hod King is the latest in an incredible character study and journey of the titular Senlin – and watching him grow book by book has been pure joy. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The book has heart and there were a number of touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction.
12) A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Martine’s debut is a frenetic political space opera that asks the reader to put in some work, for easily one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the year. The worldbuilding is near seamlessly blended into the narrative, allowing osmosis like an exchange between the characters and their world. It’s a character-driven drama, wherein the characters have as much agency as the situation allows, leading to the characters to deeply question their own identity, especially when it comes to nationality and the goals of an inherited community. To top it off, Empire has one of the most exciting and bombastic conclusions I’ve read in a long while; it closes the book, but it opens the world.
11) The Bone Ships by RJ Barker – Do you like dragons? Do you like swashbuckling adventures? Do you like nautical terms and big beautiful ships? Do you like quirky crews of misfits learning to work together? Do you like detailed world-building and island nations with rich cultures? Do you like super cool hats? If you answered yes to any of the above, RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships might be the next book for you. The world is top-tier in its quality and the plot is surprising in its direction and themes. The Bone Ships stands out as one of the most memorable, tense, and majestic reads I have had this year. If it were not for its painfully slow opening, I would likely have given it a perfect score. There is a beautiful synergy of old tropes and new ideas coexisting in this novel that speaks to me on several levels. This book was one of the only ‘escort quests’ I have ever enjoyed being a part of, and it was a privilege to watch the protagonists forge a legendary ship’s crew from the ashes of failure. Do yourself a favor and give The Bone Ships a read.
Welcome to the top 10 of 2019. Please note that the competition for these top 10 spots was fierce this year, so all of these books should be given high accolades.
10) The Burning White by Brent Weeks – I gotta tell you, I did not have a lot of faith that Weeks could pull off a powerful ending for The Lightbringer – and wow was I wrong. This is one of the twistiest series I have ever read, and the more turns you have the harder it is the land the final reveal. The Burning White sticks a landing that would earn a straight 10 from Olympic judges. The final installment of this modern classic cements its standing in my mind and does a lot to alleviate some of the minor animosity created by book four in the series. Future generations of readers will not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to read these five books back to back, and will never know the pain of having to wait years to find out what happens in the story next. Give these books a spin if you haven’t already.
9) The Wolf’s Call by Anthony Ryan – Oh Vaelin, why do I never tire of you? From your broody attitude, to your brooding demeanor, to your brooding sense of fashion, you are a walking edgelord trope that should be terrible. And yet, through the skilled mind and hands of Ryan, you are given life, purpose, and depth. You are a fascinating character to read about. I love projecting myself into someone so weary and tenacious. Vaelin is a force of nature with a quiet contemplative mind that I can’t stop peeking into. I am so happy that Ryan has brought us back to his original world, even if it is just for a duology. The Wolf’s Call is a book that any fan of the fantasy genre will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form once again.
8) The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – Horror and science fiction have an interesting relationship as they can sometimes explore similar ideas with wildly different approaches. Luckily, Starling is an excellent matchmaker, highlighting both genres’ strongest attributes in her debut, which also happens to be our top Dark Horse pick. The setting and the characters are the biggest stars in this book. Gyre and Em have layers to them that heighten the tension and horror of the deep caves Gyre is exploring. The first person perspective is purposefully disoriented, making the reader feel as if they are in Gyre’s shoes, and needing to ask the questions she herself has trouble answering. The character’s flaws are on full display in an incredibly human fashion. Their reckless decisions feel necessary, but also stupid and punishable. I never really felt safe during the story, especially when Gyre’s radio only partner Em, seemed so questionable. The Luminous Dead has buried itself deep in my brain and will remain there for years to come. If you’re looking for an intimate horror experience, turn out the lights and let the dead light your way.
7) A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs – If I had my way this would be in the first slot. I have evangelized about this book to everyone I have spoken to about reading since I experienced it and will continue to for as long as I live. A duology of novellas, one longer than the other, A Lush and Seething Hell may be my favorite book of all time. The longer I’ve had to think about and reflect upon its story the more profoundly it has impacted me and influenced my thoughts. Each of the stories it contains is compelling and moving in the extreme, and while I personally have my favorite of the two either one would top a list of what my personal “best” short stories would be. The genre and subject matter means that by default this book won’t be for everyone, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to find out personally. I will get my ARC signed by John Hornor Jacobs someday if it is the last thing I do, and I would highly recommend every single person reading this article to go and pick this book up. I cannot wait for what Jacobs does next.
6) Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey – I have been reading The Expanse for almost a decade, and for almost a decade it has consistently and reliably brought joy into my life. As such, there are few things I look forward to more every year than my next dose of The Expanse – until now. The feelings of joy and excitement when I look at these books have slowly morphed into anxiety and dread. It isn’t because the books have gotten worse, they are still brilliant pillars of sci-fi excellence. It isn’t because there is something better that has taken their throne, they are still the leading providers for me of great books. It’s because, to quote Doctor Strange, “we are in the endgame now.” The hundreds of plot threads and characters that the Corey duo have littered throughout their series are coming together as we enter the second to last book. Tiamat’s Wrath is just as powerful, emotional, and enjoyable as its seven older siblings – but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that now I only have a single core Expanse book left. Tiamat’s Wrath continues the series tradition of excellent character-based storytelling. It is truly a marvel that after eight books Ty Franck and Danial Abraham’s story is as captivating as it was almost a decade ago. I cannot contain my excitement over finding out how The Expanse is going to end, nor my impending feeling of dread that it will soon be over. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book/series. The Quill to Live collectively cannot recommend it more.
5) Exhalation by Ted Chiang – One of two books to sneak into the top five in the last two weeks of the year and cause a delay on the list. As far as I am concerned, Exhalation should be required reading for everyone. It is a book that evokes curiosity in the reader and kickstarts introspection. It is such a thoughtful and inspirational book and I can’t imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy it. In 300 pages and nine stories, Chiang will drop a boatload of wisdom on you and ask some questions that will have you thinking weeks after you finish the collection. This series of shorts pack punches orders of magnitude larger than other things that have come out this year, it a much smaller package. Just read it, seriously. You really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of these wonderful stories.
4) A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie – Like anyone familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised this is in the top five. Headline: author who everyone agrees is dope as hell writes next installment of beloved series and it turns out really good – surprising no one and delighting everyone. Seriously, A Little Hatred is amazing. Abercrombie has ushered in a new generation of characters that are just as compelling, unconventional, and emotional as the last – without cannibalizing his own work. The book is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, one of the best books I have read this year.
3) Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – With powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of its predecessor allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. While Time had great characters, Tchaikovsky really upped the ante in Ruin. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. Unfortunately, this closeness led me to feel that some of their stories were not fully explored by the end of the book, but it did not dampen the power of the story overall. Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.
2) The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This sneaky little snake is the true reason our list is late again this year. The silver-tongued Morgenstern must have known what she was doing when she released 2019’s arguably most anticipated book a week before reviewers like me had to put out best-of lists. I have not written a full review for The Starless Sea yet because I am still digesting how I feel about the book after binging it in a few days. However, I was only about ten pages into the book before I knew it would be a top contender for the book of the year on every fantasy and sci-fi list. With one of the most relatable protagonists of all time, The Starless Sea captured my imagination in a way few stories ever have. The book, simply put, is a work of art. With its stunning exterior and gorgeous prose upon its pages, I found myself holding this modern classic to my chest for comfort after it hammered my heart into oblivious with its touching story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and dive into The Starless Sea.
1) A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay – This year it was a close thing. The difference in ranking between the number one and two books this year is minuscule, but at the end of the day(year) I had to give it to A Brightness Long Ago. Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read. It is a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and is The Quill to Live’s #1 book of 2019 – I urge you to all go find a copy.
2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:
The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?
The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.
The Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.
Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.
Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.
Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.
Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”
The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).
Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.
Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.
Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.
Armor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.
An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.
Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.
Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.
A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.
The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.
Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.
Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.
Body Horror – The fear of our own mortality.
Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.
In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.
Paranormal – The fear of our lack of understanding
I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.
Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.
Psychological – The fear we create for ourselves
I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.
Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”
In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.
Cosmic Horror – The fear of our own insignificance
Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.
Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.
In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.
Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.
Okay, so it is distinctly possible that I misunderstood the directions for this thought piece. Apparently I am the only person who thinks about bottoms when told to list the “Best ‘Buts’ of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” But we can’t let good thicc content go to waste, so strap in and get ready for an intellectual dissection of booty. In this list, we explore the iconic backsides of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. What makes a butt stand out? Are all butts created equal? Do some rise above the rest to sit in the upper echelon, looking down upon the lesser derrières? The answers to these questions, of course, are “Bodaciousness and impact,” “No,” and “ASS-olutely.” Here’s our list of the best butts the sci-fi and fantasy world has to offer (in no particular order)!
1) Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings) – As soon as we started talking about butts, my mind immediately went to one of the greatest heroes of fantasy, the hobbit who trekked across a country, putting miles and miles of work into shaping what must be a magnificent bubble butt hidden beneath his elven cloak. But not Frodo, oh no siree. All that wasting away from not eating and the pressure of the One Ring does not a round rump make. Samwise, on the other hand, carried Mr. Frodo up a mountain, climbed innumerable stairs, and stomped his way through swampy marshes, all while powered by friendship. His efforts crafted what I can, and do, imagine is one of the finest toned posteriors in all of Middle Earth. Mmmm mmmm, gimme a big bowl of rabbit stew with an extra serving some of those rump-roasted trouser PO-TA-TOES Sam is carrying around! (Also, an extra shoutout to Samwise for being the only person to make both the But and Butts list)
2) Dr. Manhattan (Watchmen) – Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan flaunts his blue moon for the majority of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic masterwork. His big, blue butt and…the rest of his blue body (*wink*) are just there through much of the novel, on display for everyone to enjoy. In fact, it’s mildly disappointing when Dr. Manhattan chooses to summon clothing out of thin air, hiding his glorious blue bum from the world. Dr. Manhattan bares it all–not just because he’s ripped, but because he’s beyond the need for clothes. This choice represents the ever-thinning threads that connect him to the humanity he is destined to leave behind. His nudity, though, along with his insane superpowers and the public’s shifting opinion on him, culminates in a heart-wrenching end for Dr. Manhattan’s blue butt. With the HBO show coming up, we imagine many readers will venture into the world of Watchmen for the first time soon, so we’ll avoid spoilers. Come for the blue butt, stay for one of the best stories ever to grace the comic book medium.
3) Lan Mandragoran (The Wheel of Time) – I don’t think anyone can fight me on this one – Lan Mandragoran has to have one of the hardest, most chiseled, badass asses out there. Do you know what isn’t kind to the butt? Equestrian… Equestrinarianism… Equest… HORSEBACK RIDING. Riding on a horse all day is basically the equivalent of beating your butt into submission until it rises up and can fight a horse. It’s a Rocky montage in which Rocky is your butt, and Apollo is the the saddle/gravity/and horse’s back all rolled into one. And there is no one I can think of in all of fantasy who does more horseback riding than Lan. First off, his horse Mandarb is described as a hulking goliath of an animal which only means that all butt-on-saddle action is more intense. Second off, Lan spends almost every single book riding across the continent either being chased, chasing someone, or racing against time. And there are fourteen books in this sequence. By the end of A Memory of Light, it would not surprise me if Lan’s butt was tougher than his plate mail. He could probably run into battle and simply block sword strikes on his bare keister. Lan Mandragoran’s butt is one of the most capable warriors in a series full of them.
4) Portia (Children of Time) – You want to talk about butts with talents? Asses with aptitude? Proficient posteriors? Cheeks with capability? Keisters with knacks? Butts that can do so many amazing things that it makes other butts look like dumbpoops? Then look no further than the stunning rear end of Portia the spider from Children of Time. Things this butt can do that yours can’t – have full conversations with everyone around her through the use of abdominal paps, literally build a house, forge weapons, create art. Can your butt do any of those things (no a huge poop does not count as any of them, you are gross, sit down)? This incredible lady has a genetically enhanced and specially evolved behind in order to help her survive in a hostile world. Her bottom is straight fire and could give any butt on this list a run for its money. If this was a butt royal, it would be Portia’s that stood victorious on the fields of battle.
5) Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender) – Stay with me here. When you show someone your butt, you’re MOONing them. The moon lends waterbenders their greatest power. The moon is the biggest butt in the Avatar world. If you apply the transitive property a few times in a very accurate, peer-reviewed mathematical process, this means that waterbending is essentially buttbending. Katara becomes one of the world’s best buttbenders as the series progresses, carrying over into the graphic novels that follow. She even leverages the power of the moon to bloodbend at one point. That’s badass…or should I say badBUTT? An honorable mention from the Avatar universe goes to Appa, the sky bison whose tail (a clear extension of the butt) packs a punch and frequently launches enemies into oblivion.
6) Alex Kamal (The Expanse) – We have talked about toned butts, we have talked about buff butts, and we have talked about versatile butts – but what about a perfectly preserved butt? Let me ask you, what is a butt’s greatest enemy? Correct, the forces of time and gravity. No matter how powerful the butt, no matter how intense the training routine, time makes fools of all butts. However, there are those who go to great lengths to minimize their keister strain and keep their butts safe. I am talking about spaceship pilots of course. Adrift in the vast expanse of a space vacuum, a pilot’s butt is kept safe from the ravages of a planet’s mass. Alex Kamal, from The Expanse, is a particularly stunning example of the perfect pampered posterior. Not only has he spent most of his life in space, keeping his butt safe, but he also spends almost all of his time in a gel crash couch that even further insulates his booty from harm. Alex’s butt is like a mint condition action figure, worth even more in its packaging. His butt is pristine, pert, and positively bodacious.
7) Jean Tannen (The Gentlemen Bastards) – If you’re reading this list, there’s approximately a 100% chance you’re thinking “wow this incredible thought piece has made a cultural contribution so powerful that I am inspired to go home and improve my own butt.” We have all been there. So you get to the gym and are looking at the best exercises to do. After looking for a while, you locate the holy grail of buttcheek toning, the squat. Squats are the king of butt exercises and there is no surer way to take your bottom from zero to hero than squatting all the time. But you know who squats a lot? Thieves. Always squatting on rooftops, skulking through alleys, and creeping through homes while they rob people blind. Thus we get to our next member of the posterior pantheon, Jean from The Lies of Locke Lamora. This man’s walk basically resembles the Kazatsky dance as he just squats his way around town. His ass is so toned he could probably grip a flat wall between his two cheeks and suspend himself in the air just by clenching while he gave his arms and legs a nice rest. Thieves have developed the pinnacle of butt-day workout routines for the gym, and there is no thief more devoted to his work out than Jean.
8) Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter) – First, let’s address the elephant-butt in the room—namely, Dolores Umbridge’s elephant-butt. Yeah, the toad-like Ministry lackey has a certifiably large derrière, but it’s her general disposition that earns her a spot on this list. Umbridge waltzes into Hogwarts and promptly takes over. She makes students who can literally perform magic simply sit and read books (even though we at QTL know that books are their own special kind of magic, right? *eye roll*). She makes her students carve disciplinary messages onto the backs of their own hands as punishment for speaking out of turn or “telling lies.” Oh, and there’s the whole “I’m a wizarding world mega racist” thing. Umbridge both has and is one of fantasy’s biggest butts, and we love to hate her for it.
9) Falkor (Neverending Story) – Next up is arguably the biggest butt on this list and probably the most awesome of all butts. Falkor is the magnificent white luck dragon from the Neverending Story, and he is 43 feet long, a good majority of which can be considered a butt. Yes, shut up, his entire body is one long butt, this is my butt article and I get to determine what qualifies as a butt and the glorious 40 feet behind Falkor’s head are definitely a butt. I’ve never wanted to hop on a booty as badly as when I first imagined myself in Atreyu’s place, riding the resplendent and dignified Falkor across the landscape of Fantasia. Imagine holding handfuls of the dragon’s fluffy down fur in your hands as you ride through the skies of Fantasia, and I guarantee you’ll come around and agree that this one of the best butts of sci-fi and fantasy.
10) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) – An absolute brutal training regimen and employment as a magical Secret Service agent both mean that Karris White Oak from the Lightbringer series is PROBABLY rocking a serious booty. But, I am not actually sure. Why you ask? Leather. Tons, and tons, of leather. You see, leather is like butt-makeup and when properly applied can make any heinie look heavenly or derriere look devilish. As a member of the Blackguards, Karris (and the rest of the organization) basically spend their lives in so much combat leather that it resembles a gimp suit. She can’t so much as pick up a pencil without the telltale sounds of squeaky, clingy, jetblack cowhide. Even if she wasn’t born with a grade-A bottom, her leathers have probably sculpted her ass into a work of art at this point – serving as a sculptor’s mold that has sat for twenty years. It’s as I always say, fake it until you make it.
Bonus Bum: Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher) – Geralt of Rivia has a terrible butt. It’s old, weather worn, severely poisoned, and nothing to look at judging by some of the scenes in The Witcher game series. However, he still almost made the list due to the sheer variety of people, animals, creatures, and magic wielders that have hunted his booty. In every book of the The Witcher series, as well as the games, it seems that someone (or multiple someones) is after his ass. God only knows why multiple sorceresses try, to varying degrees of success, to get on that butt. Kings, Spymasters, Emperors, Bounty Hunters, Archmages, Fey, Undead, Assassins, and more have tried to catch up to Geralt to get a hold of his backside. And let’s not forget the numerous creatures and monsters of The World who try to take a bite out of that booty! And so, despite not making the list as one of the Top Ten Best Butts, Geralt does at least possess possibly the most sought after butt in fantasy.
That’s our round-up–thanks for reading! Any classic butts you think we missed? Want more lists/have an idea for our next one? Let us know in the comments!
The science fiction and fantasy pantheon overflows with amazing quotes. The intertwined genres offer heart-wrenching quotes about love, inspiring quotes about courage, uncompromising quotes about hardship, and endless others. At their best, these quotes can profoundly touch the reader and leave a lifelong impact on them. Some of the most impactful quotes I’ve encountered share one notable quality: they include the word “but.” These quotes all build the reader up with a crescendo of anticipation, then pull out the metaphorical rug with a “but” and a revelatory flourish. The “but” is versatile, and it can be used to undercut expectations, give readers hints about the future of the narrative, or make you rethink your stance on a particular character. To prove this, I asked the Quill to Live writers to build a list of our favorite “but” quotes, and this is what we came up with. Enjoy!
Rubeus Hagrid’s description of Harry Potter’s first Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher hosts one of the fantasy genre’s most iconic and prescient “buts.” For those who voraciously re-read the series, it’s a darkly playful nod to the tortured Professor Quirrell’s fate at the hands of Voldemort. To the first-years, it’s an indication that something is…off about him. Hagrid, a loyal but not-so-bright fellow, lends the quote a certain gravitas that makes it all the more meaningful. Young Harry trusts Hagrid, and his instincts are sharp enough to know when something’s amiss. This first interaction with Quirrell and the hints Hagrid drops combine to form a literary moment that sets the stage for the remainder of the series–not everyone is trustworthy, and it’s hard work separating the noble from the wicked in the wizarding world.
2) “. . . Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy–of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
One of science fiction’s most profound “buts” appears early in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following Moon-Watcher and his decidedly unevolved band of ape cohorts in the novel’s opening chapters provides a stark contrast from the movie, allowing the ape-community time to breathe and anchoring the novel in pseudo-human history. This “but” signals the ape colony’s ascent to a more elite and less primitive race, laying the groundwork for the millennia-spanning evolutionary space opera to come.
3) “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long passed, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” – The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
This quote opens Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and graces the top of the first page of The Eye in the World. It’s responsible for beckoning an entire generation of readers into the fantasy genre. For many, it is a profound quote that speaks to the nature of the story of The Wheel of Time – a cycle that never ends. It just goes on, and on, and on, and never deviates from its protracted course… until now. The “but” shows the reader that they are witnessing something special, something one of a kind. It begs the reader to demand of the book “show me why this time will be different.”
4) “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” – The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Said by Samwise Gamgee when Frodo loses his hope, this quote speaks to tenacity. The “but” encapsulates the fact that while things might be hard now, the bad times are fleeting. If we just press on and keep placing one foot in front of the other, the dawn will come. This “but” represents rock bottom and a turning point. Although today is a nightmare, tomorrow it will just seem like a dream. This “but” renews the hopes of its readers and shows you that everything is going to be okay. The night is darkest just before the dawn.
5) “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” – The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss is known for his delightful prose, but this quote in particular always stood out to us. The line is about wisdom and how curiosity, not the sheer volume of one’s knowledge, is the foundation of a smart mind. The “but” in this instance encourages you to go deeper and think hard about which of the two qualities is better. At the same time, it helps organize the line to convince the reader that curiosity and the promise of future knowledge can be better than knowledge alone.
This is one of our favorite quotes of all time, and this might just be our favorite “but.” Declared by Kaladin right before he does something incredibly badass, this “but” serves to hype up the reader for an explosive climax that approaches at full speed. This “but” is a harbinger of awesome and a shepherd of excitement, transitioning the reader into an adrenaline fueled spot on the edge of their seat.
7) “The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
We have seen a ton of serious “buts” so far, but the “but” can also be humorous. It can serve as a straight man, as it does in this famous Douglas Adams quote, to the ridiculous. In this quote, the “but” serves as a foil to the outlandish scenario of dolphins being hyper sentient space-faring aliens, and their gratitude for all the fish we have given them in one form or another over the years. The “but” is the gateway from the normal to the absurd, the everyday to the ridiculous.
A spectacular quote from a spectacular book shows that Le Guin knew the power of a well placed “but.” The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things, one of which is growth and change. This quote eloquently states an age-old adage: it isn’t about where you are going, it’s about what you experience on the way. This “but” is a quiet and wise leader that takes the reader’s hand and shows them insight and wisdom into their own lives. It is a “but” that wants you to be happier and live better.
It’s fitting that a fantasy epic so replete with death and destruction can make such a poignant commentary on the joys of life. George R.R. Martin weaves a massive tale brimming with the worst facets of humanity. Torture, murder, deceit, backstabbing, and any number of other wrongdoings fill the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but through it all, in stark (pun intended) contrast to the woeful world surrounding them, the characters trudge forward and keep a firm grip on those small moments that make them feel alive. This “but” is a forceful commentary on the fleeting nature of life, and a call for Jon Snow and his comrades to seize the day. If you live each day fearful of death, are you really living at all? In response to that question, this “but” shouts a resounding, unequivocal “no.”
10) “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” – Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Our final “but” comes to us courtesy of Pratchett and Gaiman and speaks to human nature. In their famous collaborative work, Good Omens, the authors toy with the idea of how circumstance and context sculpt human values and morality. In the book, the authors basically make the case that no one is fundamentally good or evil, but a product of their surroundings and choices. The “but” serves to let you in on the secret of the book and give you insight into humanity. It’s a powerful “but” and one of our favorites.
Well, that’s the full list! We hope you have enjoyed our compilation of the top ten “buts” in fantasy and science fiction. This list was compiled through a combined effort of all of The Quill to Live writers, except for Sean, who badly misunderstood the assignment. His list was undignified, inappropriate, and completely mishandled the subject matter of the piece. I doubt anyone would be interested, but if you want to see his list, you can find an article on the best butts here.