Fourteen Female Protagonists Worth Your Time

This week a few readers asked us to talk about our favorite female protagonists. We have always wanted to write a post about our favorite women leads in fantasy and sci-fi, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to do it. Four of us sat down and came up with fourteen of our favorite lead characters (we left out anyone from Malazan as we could do an entire post about the female leads in those books). If you are looking for powerful female leads, we promise you that this list will not disappoint. The characters are in no particular order, but we have numbered them to make this huge list easier to read.

vin-by-miranda-meeks-web-703x10891) Vin (Mistborn) Let’s get her out of the way, all of you knew she would be on this list: Vin. I absolutely loved following Vin’s storyline through the Mistborn series. She grew up facing true hardships: beatings, starvation, fighting off unwanted advances, and a harsh older brother who always tried to instill the belief upon her that you can only ever rely on yourself. If there’s one thing Vin learned from her childhood, it’s to be a survivor. But the best part of her story is seeing her evolution. After growing up with people constantly trying to take advantage of her, she falls in with a group of rogues that treat her as a full member of their team. She finally gets to experience trust and friendship and, as part of their exploits, love. In fact, Vin’s love story is one of my favorites across all the novels I’ve read.

Vin suffers from the same imposter syndrome that many of us feel, myself included, and it was extremely life-affirming to see her gain confidence in her own abilities while struggling to accept that she was worthy of the trust and love of the people around her. It’s rarely easy to feel like you fit in with a group of people you admire, and my heart ached sympathetically whenever Vin was down on herself, but that only made me cheer harder when she rises up and lets herself shine.

23548791-_sy540_2) Essun (The Fifth Season) – It’s so hard to talk about why Essun is such a great character without giving away one of my favorite eye-opening moments of The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. Considering the title of the book is the term used to describe a time of apocalyptic change that occurs semi-frequently, and the fact that it’s a three book series, it goes without saying that Essun is resilient. She lives in a harsh world and has suffered more than most in it. At the same time, she’s had moments of joy that most in her world have never matched. It’s a combination, especially when taken in whole at the end of the series, that creates a character whose defining trait is a melancholic sense of moving forward and accepting the hand one has been dealt.

I would never want to be Essun, her life is tragic and her world is harsh. I do, however, want to be like Essun in certain ways. Her sheer determination, her resourcefulness, her willingness to sacrifice for those she loves. Her story is the saddest on this list, but it’s also the most moving and it challenged me the most emotionally. The two of us here at QTL who have read the series have been badgering everyone we know to read this series just so we can have more people to talk about it with. It is worth setting the time and emotional battery power aside to read this difficult, painful, and beautiful series.

259721773) Lizanne Lethridge (The Waking Fire) – In a time where readers are looking for the next badass woman to showcase that women can be tough too, Lizanne stands out from the crowd. Having recently read Legion of Flame, I have gained a new appreciation for Lizanne as a character. Sure, she is a badass super spy with special abilities, but she is also supremely competent and confident in her skills. She prefers nothing more than getting a job done and displays one of the fiercest drives I have experienced in any character. What makes her one of the most interesting female protagonists is her conflicts rarely involve improving her ability to fight. Fighting feels like a roadblock to her, just a thing that must happen in order to achieve her goals. She is incredibly adaptable to any situation, being able to read a room and become the person she needs to be, and Ryan is a good enough writer to make you feel Lizanne trick herself into being that person.

One of my recent favorite character moments involves her, and a man, interested in her romantically, discussing who she is. He mentions that he hates “what the syndicate turned her into”, and with a quiet confidence she responds with something akin to “this had to be inside me from the beginning, otherwise they would have nothing to mold”. It was such a small moment but incredibly cogent moment. And to feel it imbued with her voice in such a succinct defense of who she was while being said to a man who had only an inkling of who she was, was so powerful to me. I only wish I could carry the same confidence that Lizanne has infused within her bones.

22876618-_sy540_4) Ashara Thivani/Komayd (City of Stairs) – Anyone who reads the site regularly will know one of our all-time favorite books is City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. No small part of this love is due to the books incredible protagonist, Shara. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history. When confronted with mysteries and challenges in the novel, she uses this historical knowledge to find answers and solutions that no one else can. She is an agent, a scholar, and a brokenhearted woman with a deep story. The more time you spend with her, the more complex you realize she is, and the more you get to see her grow. She is the niece of a man who threw the world into chaos and disarray, and so has a complex relationship with the people she works to save. She is in love with a man she cannot have, but only loves him the fiercer for it.

Shara stands out among all protagonists, not just female, as a unique and powerful character. Her strengths are a bookish intelligence, an unparalleled wit, a warm and caring heart, and the conviction to always do what is right no matter the cost to herself. She is everything I aspire to be in a person, and if I can live my life with a shadow of a resemblance to how she lives hers – I will die knowing that I have spent my time on this earth wisely.

mulaghesh03-web5) General Turyin Mulagesh (City of Blades) – Have we mentioned we love the Divine Cities Trilogy? The only series to contribute two characters to the list, these books are great for female leads. Our lead lady from book one, Shara, steps down as the leading voice in book two. In her place, a side character from the first novel, Mulagesh, takes over as the primary protagonist. An older woman in a high ranking role in the military, Mulagesh’s story in City of Blades is one of seeking redemptions. She has a brilliant mind for military tactics, is excellent in a fight, and is surprisingly funny given her rather dour disposition. Mulagesh is haunted by the sins of the past, both hers and others. She is a woman who has seen the absolute worst of war and came out realizing that no cause is worth the atrocities she has seen. So, when Mulagesh is dispatched to a city in a state of rebellion she will do anything to keep the simmering conflict from coming to a boil. In this, as with many things, she fails.

Mulagesh is a walking tragedy that shattered my heart into a billion pieces. Her story is one of repeated failure, and the tenacity to stand back up again and keep going. Mulagesh has an inner strength to her that is a wonder to behold. Her refusal to stay down, persistence in the face of failure, wonderful personality, and loving heart make her one of my favorite characters of all time.

bobbie_draper_by_jujufei-d9rnrd76) Bobbie Draper (The Expanse) – If anyone can claim the title of first love in a book, it would be Bobbie Draper. I first read Caliban’s War a few months after it came out, but only can put my admiration for Bobbie into words from a recent re-read. She is the stereotypical tough grunt female marine but brought to life. She is patriotic but pragmatic and willing to see the world as it is, instead of just how she wishes it were. There is something so immediately and organically dynamic about her. Her introduction to The Expanse was explosive and heart wrenching, and her attempts to cope with it humanizing in a way I had not dealt with at the time. The authors saw something in her that went beyond badass female with a penchant for kicking ass and opted to make her a human being with fears and anxieties from her near-death experience. But she also carries every scene she’s in with energy, exhibiting empathy for those around her.

Honestly, I could gush about her for ages, having the best traits of a longtime friend who’s always been there for you. She is admirably tough and tender and knows exactly how much force to apply, physically and emotionally. She will put herself on the line for you, and even knock some sense into you when she feels you need it. I implore you to read the Expanse and experience the thrill of being in her head when she puts on her power suit for yourself.

10510641-_sy540_7) The Lady (The Black Company) Lady, from The Black Company, is probably one of the few female characters I have a complex relationship with. Certainly, it does not hurt that she has 10 books to form that relationship, but she also starts off on the wrong foot with the reader. How can she not be when she is the evil Empress of a dark empire and uses powerful magic to oppress and control the people around her. Not only that, she is in control 10 of the most powerful sorcerers and sorceresses known as The Taken and is rumored to have killed her own twin sister. I do not know about you, but all those facts made her evil and ruthless in my eyes. I do not know if I ever would say Lady is badass. She is too cold, calculating and pragmatic to be awarded such a bombastic descriptor. However, this is where she shines. Rarely are women in her position afforded the characterization she gets. Her focus on the facts, the easily recognizable details and finding whichever ways she can to hold onto her power, with minimal damage was refreshing.

Eventually, the reader gets to see more of what drives her from her POV, and how incredibly detail oriented she is as the series continues, and over time she won me over. She is an excellent example of a humanized villain whose crimes are not forgotten, least of all by Lady herself. Seeing someone with her power, use her skills with such care and introspection to make sure her actions line up with who she wants to be, all while learning to deal with her past make her a light at the end of the tunnel. She is there to show us that it is okay to look towards the future, even if we have hurt people in the past.

threepartsdead_1508) Elayne Kevarian (The Craft Sequence) – Before I wax lyrical about how awesome Elayne Kevarian is, I want to point out that The Craft Sequence has an incredible number and diversity of female leads. Tara Abernathy the young professional craftswoman, Kai Pohala the transgender priestess, Cat the addict cop and avatar for a lost goddess. This entire post could be about the strong women in these books, but I’d like to focus on my personal favorite. Elayne Kevarian is the main reason Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series is in my Tier One category. Starting off in Three Parts Dead (published first but third in chronological order, a confusing decision Gladstone has discussed in the past), Elayne is introduced to us as a studiously professional Craftswoman who is surpassingly competent, intelligent, and cold in more ways than one. By the end of the novel we’re given a few glances past Elayne’s professional exterior and get a peek at who she really is…still surpassingly competent, intelligent, and professional, but far less cold than we’re originally led to believe.

The development of Elayne’s character from demanding boss to trusted colleague in Three Parts Dead is further explored in Last First Snow, a novel that takes place a couple decades before the events in Three Parts. This time acting as one of the main protagonists, a younger and less sure Elayne deals with extensive and detailed urban planning sessions while the city of Dresediel Lex is engulfed in plague, riots, and magical flame. The stress she is put under in this book and how she handles it is unique, interesting, and inspiring. Her reaction to the ramifications of the decisions she made truly humanizes her. I adore competent characters, and Elayne’s ability to thrive under pressure and trust in her own talents to succeed elevate her to one of my absolute favorite characters.

lighbringer2b14-162bkarris2b029) Karris White Oak (Lightbringer) Another one of the warrior women on our list, Karris White Oak portrays strength, quick thinking, leadership, creativity, and tenacity. She’s a member of an elite group of bodyguards called the Blackguard, a unit basically like the Secret Service, whose job it is to protect the Prism – a powerful magician and holy symbol in the world of the Lightbringer series. Karris is particularly inspiring due to her ability to overcome hardships. She grew up in a household that left a lot to be desired in terms of familial love and care, and while she struggles with the results of those experiences, she accepts them and moves past them. While certainly not perfect, Karris shows incredible resilience to what life throws at her, and her inner strength is definitely something I admire.

Since a lot of the power of the magic system in this series is based on creativity and speed, it’s also really fantastic to see Karris at work, that is, battling off assassins and warriors to protect the Prism and the people she cares about. She throws together impressive plans, and if (or more often when) they go off the rails, it’s always fun to see how she adapts to the situation. Karris is a foreigner in the Blackguard, the only one of her people to ever be accepted into the elite force. Despite this, she earns the respect of her captain and the other Blackguard through displays of her skill and determination, and I always found myself cheering hard for Karris in almost every situation.

3021251710) Çedamihn Ahyanesh’ala (Twelve Kings in Sharakhai) – If you are looking for a lady who will have your back in a fight, look no further than Çeda. Çeda is many things: a peerless gladiator, a rebel fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful set of foes, and a girl looking for truth. Her combat prowess is exhilarating to read about and she is one of the coolest protagonists on this list. She is overwhelmingly resourceful and spends a large portion of her first novel as a one-woman army fighting against twelve terrible tyrants.

However, as the series moves forward we get to see Çeda grow, learn, and realized that she cannot do everything alone. As she comes to make friends and allies you learn that beneath her hard exterior she has a good heart and a powerful sense of loyalty. Çeda is someone who has been abandoned in a harsh world alone, and yet still somehow can see good in people. She has one of my favorite qualities in a character: a wonderful talent for making friends in unlikely places. Çeda is simply an impressive person, and a character I would be honored to have as a friend.

eames_bloddy-rose_pb11) Tam Hashford (Bloody Rose) – How do you follow up a fantasy romp about the greatest band (read: band of mercenaries) in history getting back together for one last gig? Kings of the Wyld, the first book in The Band series by Nicholas Eames, was one of my favorite books of last year and the prospect of a sequel not focusing on Golden Gabe and Slowhand seemed like folly to me. I was glad to be proven wrong by Bloody Rose, a sequel following the band headed by Gabe’s daughter, Rose. In keeping with the narrative style of the first, the story is told by someone other than the band’s frontman/woman (read: most famous member). In the first book, Clay Cooper was in charge of narration, in Bloody Rose we’re introduced to Tam Hashford. The only daughter of a pair of legendary bandmates, Tam has dreamed her whole life of going on tour and seeing the various areas and cities that make up her world. After her mother’s untimely death, her father quit the band business entirely and raised Tam himself. After some difficulty getting her father to accept her wish to join a band, she does eventually get on the road and travels with Rose and the gang. The story follows the plot of the movie Almost Famous rather closely, and Tam sees what touring is like outside of the cheering crowds and glory.

It would be easy to lose Tam among the massive personalities of the band members, but it is a credit to Eames that he managed to write such a meaningful and warm-hearted coming of age story in the midst of all the action and debauchery. Coming to terms with who she is as a woman in comparison to her mother’s legend, dealing with the fact that her dreams aren’t quite what she imagined them to be, and accepting parts of herself she never imagined are all topics that are dealt with carefully and meaningfully. Tam is a fantastic character and I hope we hear more about her from Eames in the future.

a1zmg0rj1sl12) Aphra Marsh (Winter Tide) – I was struggling for a while with how to describe Aphra Marsh. To those who have already read the story, it would seem strikingly suitable that it was in the frigid wind of the oncoming Chicago winter that it struck me. Aphra Marsh is Nancy Drew, if she were one of the last unchanged members of a race of Lovecraftian “monsters” (the Men of the Water, or Deep Ones) who had survived the genocide of her people by the American government in a WW2 era internment camp and eventually went on to become a bookseller in San Francisco. I know, it sounds like a weird combo, but it all adds up to one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in years.

Fiercely intelligent, loyal, compassionate, selfless, and possessed of an inner drive to understand herself and her stolen history, Aphra Marsh is who I want to be when I grow up. I could go on for pages about how her desire to relearn her people’s old ways of magic and decision to essentially take magical strays into what can best be understood as a combination of her family and a coven inspires me and speaks to me about the strength of humanity’s better nature shining through even when subjected to unfairness and hate. Luckily, a writer whose talent and skill is magnitudes greater than mine (Ruthanna Emrys) already did. Please go read Winter Tide as soon as you finish your current book.

red-sister-low13) Nona Grey (Red Sister) – We like “Magic Schools” quite a great deal here at QTL, so when I found out about a series that follows a group of nuns training young women to be assassins, poisoners, and spies I knew I had to check it out. I didn’t realize I’d also be getting one of my favorite recent protagonists out of the deal. Nona Grey is a troubled young woman saved from execution by the aforementioned order of nuns and brought into the fold to be trained as a Sister. It is there that she meets a diverse group of young women, most of whom she befriends despite her prickly and difficult demeanor.

Unlike a lot of the women on this list, most of whom we meet as mature adults, Nona is a young and impatient adolescent. She can be irrational, arrogant, hot-headed, and rude. Her tendency to charge into situations bullheaded because of her overconfidence in herself or difficulty in controlling her temper can be frustrating at times, but when she manages to pull it off it results in some of the most breathtaking moments in fantasy I’ve read in years. Nona is a flawed protagonist and narrator, but all blades start as rough metal before they’re forged and tempered, and it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to shadow Nona as she works out her kinks and burrs on her journey to becoming the woman she’s meant to be.

2881101614) Lady Vlora Flint (Sins of Empire) – Vlora is a protagonist with a slightly unique circumstance. Introduced in the Powdermage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan, she is initially a side character with nominal depth and not a lot of screen time. However, despite her small presence in the first three books, McClellan thought she had potential and decided to make her the lead voice in a sequel series called Gods of Blood and Powder. If you are interested in reading Vlora’s story, it will take a bit of (enjoyable) work to get to, but she is worth it. She is the general of a mercenary company and as thus, has a degree of hardness and severity that you would expect in a high ranking military officer. She is a brutal strategist and a literal powderkeg in a fight, but my favorite part about Vlora is her problem-solving abilities and flexibility.

I identify with Vlora because, at a high level, she is someone completely out of her depth just trying to stay afloat. Vlora ends up in a supernatural conflict in which she is outgunned by several orders of magnitude. She is someone who is used to being the biggest stick in a fight and intensely dislikes suddenly feeling powerless to what might as well be forces of nature. However, her aforementioned flexibility and adaptability allow her to work with the meager power she has to devastating results. She is one of the best leaders out of any protagonist I have read, female or otherwise.

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 5: The Themes

PreviouslyPart 4: The Characters

lrg3w0llmu

While the ten core Malazan books are filled with tons of awesome plot, memorable characters, and more laughs and tears than you know what to do with – Erikson also made sure to pack in some consistent themes and messages that are ever present. There is not enough time left in the year to go into all of these themes, so I am only going to talk about a few of the most impactful for me personally – but know that there are a ton more beyond the handful that I list in this post. These themes are what elevate Malazan in my mind from just a fun read, to a piece of literature, and some of them I have incorporated into my personal identity. So without further ado, let’s first talk about one I already mentioned in the last characters post.

Equality without reserve, strength from diversity – Malazan has an interesting take on equality that I find fascinating. In a lot of fantasy books out there you will read about things like female soldiers or armies made of different races and species, and the tensions that these groups create in their surroundings. In the books, the Malazan Empire is founded on the idea of strength in diversity, and that every single culture and people is welcome. You are a culture that has developed advanced explosives? Bring them in, we can use those. You are a species that has wings? We always wanted an aerial unit. This creates an atmosphere were they are almost no outgroup tensions, and an army that is made up of hundreds of different kinds of people. You will have female soldiers, but unlike other books you don’t have anyone saying “oh that soldier is pretty good, for a girl”. You get tons of races working side by side, but no one making bigoted comments around a campfire about a different group of people. There is plenty of bigotry outside the Empire itself in the series, but the fact that the Malazan people think of bigots as laughably stupid (because their lack of bigotry is why they have the greatest military force in the world) creates the atmosphere of true equality where anyone can be who they want.

The meaning and importance of cultural identity – One the biggest reasons that Malazan feels like a smart, on top of a enjoyable, series is the fact that questions raised by the themes are explored. For example, a direct result of the equality theme is a new conversation about cultural identity – if an empire draws its strength from consuming and incorporating cultures, does that destroy or maintain that culture’s identity? Is cultural identity even important? Are some cultures inherently better than others? Does having a cultural identity catalyze bigotry and hatred towards others? All of these questions are explored in the story, but you will have to read it to hear the answers.

midnighttides

Who you are is never set in stoneMalazan is about change. Changes to the world, and how people do and don’t change with it. The characters in the story go through an incredible amount of evolution throughout the series, but this theme is most present in that no villain is ever presented as unredeemable. There are a few selfish sociopathic megalomaniac villains in Malazan, but most of them are hurt and scared people who are backed into a corner. Some of them refuse to waver from their paths of destruction, some of them rise to the occasion and become better people, but either way their actions are always shown to be a choice and not a certainty.

Life is full of sadness and tragedy, but it is still worth living – Holy god these books are sad. You will see so many people make incredibly hard choices, incredibly unfair things happen to good people, and unbelievable actions of love that will break your heart. If I told you some of the things that happen to the people in this story you would think it an incredibly depressing book (and it can be in some sections). Except, despite how sad Malazan makes life seem, it also always shows the good that comes out of every hard choice. It shows how five minutes of happiness can outweigh years of work and suffering. It shows the incalculable value of doing good and how you should never let life defeat you – it is always worth living.

And you should never lose your sense of humor – You wouldn’t know it from everything I have said so far, but these are incredibly funny books. There is something magical about the propensity of these characters’ ability to laugh in the face of tragedy. From everything from bad puns to bleak humor, there is no situation where a joke is inappropriate in the world of Malazan. The series is a showcase in the healing power of humor, and the juxtaposition between its laughs and tears only make both categories resonate stronger with the reader.

And finally, here are my three favorite themes of Malazan:

adjuncttavore1The tenacity of heroes, and hope as a tangible action – This is a big one for me. The heroes of Malazan are not those who were born with a myriad of special abilities and the powers of gods in their hands. The heroes of malazan are usually small innocuous people who refused to break under pressure and kept standing and fighting when everyone else gave up. They are the ones who looked at hopeless situations, and instead of sitting there and praying for a solution, got up and did something about it. Even if that something seemed small and inconsequential, they still tried their best to help. This is where the second part of this theme, hope as a tangible action, is present. A lot of Malazan boils down to gods having magical showdowns and the general populace hoping they don’t die. However, many of these conflicts are decided by the actions of a small individual, who looked at a situation way outside his control and tipped the scales by trying to do something about it. These books taught me that everyone can change the world for the better, all you have to do is keep trying.

The power of love, compassion, and friendship – You know that cheesy line that is in so much of media, “hatred never solved anything, only love can fix the world” … or something along those lines. I have always agreed with it, but never had it driven home until I read Malazan. There is so much god damn love in these books that it makes my heart hurt. You will see so many acts of love, compassion, and friendship that will just emotionally shatter you. On top of this, the power of friendship is so overwhelmingly present in these stories that you will want to call your own friends just to tell them how much you appreciate them. One of my favorite subthemes of this is that friendship can happen anywhere. There are so many weird and unlikely friendships in this story that will uplift your spirits. This theme made me a more friendly and outgoing person because it taught me the fact that you can find friendship anywhere, and how everyone is worth befriending.

The collective good of humanity – The biggest, and possibly most important, theme of Malazan. It is simple, direct, and wonderful – people are mostly good. Sure, there are definitely some bad eggs out there. There are people who cannot be redeemed, and do not want to be. Despite this, Malazan claims that the massive majority of the world is filled to the brim with good people who will do the right thing in the end. It is through this that the world slowly changes for the good, because people are inherently good. It is such an incredibly powerful and uplifting message, especially in the face of so much human tragedy in the series, and I love it. It’s a theme that’s hard to believe or agree with sometimes, especially with our current political climate, but if you give Malazan a chance, it will teach you to give humanity a chance. I think that both will impress you in the long run.

Well that’s it guys. You have now read my full review and recommendation of the Malazan series. I started this series, with a lot of help from members of the Quill team, to help pump up and ground a reader about to jump into the series. I hope that it was able to do both of those things for you, or if you have already read it I hope you think I did a good job in my brief break down. Enjoy the books, and if you ever want someone to talk with about how great the series is, you know where to find me.

Rating: The Malazan Book of the Fallen – Best/10
-Andrew and The Quill to Live team

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 4: The Characters

PreviouslyPart 3: The World

1e61c86e4de25936a97f5c448f211490So, a long time ago when I was only just beginning to think about making The Quill to Live, one of my co-editors (Will) asked me to make a list of my 100 favorite fantasy characters of all time. I started making my list, but then turned to him and asked “Wait, do you want me to include Malazan characters in the list, or make them their own separate thing? Because over half of the list will be coming from the series otherwise”. Will thought I must me exaggerating, he thought that the 50+ characters from Malazan I put in my top 100 must be a joke, and then he read the series and put roughly the same amount of Malazan people on his list.

An important thing to understand about this series going in is that it has what I call a “decentralized cast”. There isn’t really a protagonist in Malazan, unless you count the empire itself as a protagonist. Instead, the series reads more like a history book and treats its characters like members of a psychotically complex relay race – each passing the story to one another, carrying it in a race to the finish. That doesn’t mean you won’t have favorites. If you are curious, my absolute top person is Tehol from books five and seven – he is my everything. However, while I did get to spend enough time with Tehol for him to be fully fleshed out and go through a significant character development arc – he still only exists more or less in a fraction of just two of the ten books. In that small amount of time (which probably still boils down to hundreds of pages in his POV) he managed to change me as a person and impart some of the most valuable life lessons I have received from fantasy. While Tehol is my number one, this is true of tons of characters in the series and is what truly makes Malazan the best of the best when it comes to the fantasy genre.

4c2e900b1a8a25a5cd67d72673c2a57fOn top of the hundred or so characters you get detailed POVs from, Erikson also does an incredible job of exposing you to characters from outside their heads (in fact he conveniently wrote a great article on what I mean this very week that you should definitely read). So on top of the hundred of POVs you receive, you will also get to know, love, fear, and respect literally THOUSANDS of other characters. I know this sounds like either a) an exaggeration or b) a negative aspect of the book – but it is neither. Malazan is a series that seems to live by the creed of letting everyone have their cake and eat it too. It pushes boundaries and covers new ground in every possible way. For example, its thousand plus cast has this incredible balance of variety and similarity at the same time. By this I mean first that in Malazan you can find literally every kind of character you can imagine. Everything from the classic tropes (like surly assassins, wise old mages, eccentric geniuses, and masked elite fighters), to stuff you have never seen before (like crippled gods, kind devils, new takes on alcoholism, and humor in unexpected places). Yet despite this ethos of “one-of-every-kind-of-character”, Malazan never feels like it is pandering to anyone or that it is a fake world designed to appeal to all. This is because, despite their differences, there is still this incredible organic overlap of the massive cast that makes the world feel like it is actually alive. The characters and their personalities fit their roles and surroundings and they do this amazing job (one of the themes I will be diving into next post) of reflecting the real world’s complexity, and celebrating it.

Another way that Erikson brings his world to life through the characters is in his diversity of world importance. So far we have spent a ton of time talking about the gods, kings, and mages that walk the earth – bending the world to their whim. But Malazan is not just about the gods, it’s about the little guys as well. There are tons of perspectives from potters, janitors, foot soldiers, handmaids, and every other kind of role that is normally overlooked in a fantasy story. These people are incredible and do a great job of immersing you completely in the Malazan world, telling meaningful stories of their own that will move your heart, and helping aggrandize the gods and kings to give you more respect and awe for some of the other characters. I will not go into spoilers, but there is a minor mage in one of the Malazan books who only got a little bit of page time. They lived a quiet and simple life, but their story left a huge impact on me and I still think about them (and the lessons they taught me) about once every few months.

2283468968_ea1be59bb7Finally, I implied this a little in some of the other things I have said in this post, but the last thing I want to tell you about the incredible Malazan characters is their diversity. The fantasy genre is undergoing a change these days where many have realized it is a little more straight, white, and male than it should be. Perspectives from other genders, sexualities, and ethnicities have been lacking in older material and great strides are being made to produce material to include people from more backgrounds. Initially, I had a slight difficulty understanding that there was this imbalance in the diversity of fantasy writing – because Malazan is such a pillar of effortless inclusion. Eventually I realized that Malazan is a beacon of love for every type of reader and that it is a serious outlier. There is a “main” POV for every kind of reader in this story. Erikson’s and Esslemont’s decision to craft a new world from scratch means that the baggage of a medieval Europe setting are left at the door and everyone is welcome. One of the main tenets and strengths (and another theme I will go into next post) of the Malazan empire is that bigotry is the enemy of progress. A lot of fantasy novels project this as a theme, but none I have read depicts it in the same manner as Malazan. The origins of the empire (learned in the two prequel books I reviewed last week as well as the early core books) are ones of struggling for survival where the founding members did not have the luxury to look down on someone because of their background. Thus the empire was founded on the idea that while everyone is equal, and that different backgrounds just provide new skills and ideas that Malazan can benefit from.

If you have ever felt that you can’t find a character that you can identify with, I encourage you to try the Malazan series. There is someone for everyone in this series, and I am actually sure there are many someones. You will find yourself relating to, and understanding perspectives of, people you never imagined over the course of this series. Its characters will pave the way to a place of higher empathy and understanding of your common man (and woman, and child, and things that can’t be as easily defined), and you will love every moment of it as you live a thousand wonderful and interesting lives.

For me, Malazan’s greatest strength will always be in its characters. However, there is one more aspect that I want to brief you on that Malazan does incredibly well: themes. We saved it for last because this is the hardest and most nebulous part of the series to describe. Tune in tomorrow to hear about some of the running ideas and concepts that Malazan presents to the world.

Part 5: The Themes

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 3: The World

PreviouslyPart 2: The Plot

malazanbookofthefallencoolmap

Malazan world map by Sadist at the Cartographer’s Guild

One of the longest-standing go-to complaints I hear when I read fantasy book critiques is “lazy world building”. What this refers to is an author taking people and cultures that exist in either our real world (such as Russian or Middle Eastern) or popular established worlds (such as elves and dwarves from Tolkien) and slapping them into their own work with a fresh coat of paint. While I don’t necessarily agree that retrofitting existing people for your book is bad (they work in real life and works of fiction for a reason), there is something truly impressive about creating your own original people and places. For example, one of the most consistent compliments I often hear about people’s favorite fantasy books is how much readers loved diving into new places and cultures they had never seen before. It is a fun and thrilling ride to travel to a place where you don’t know the rules and customs and experience new wonders for the first time. If you are truly lucky, a good book might go beyond having a single new culture for you to immerse in, sometimes getting up to as many as three to five. These books often rise to the top of the recommended lists as they enable a core ideal of the fantasy genre, going to a new world. With all this in mind, let me tell you that Malazan has more than twenty original cultures and worlds for you to explore.

In addition, that number is only that low because I find it difficult to find an umbrella term for the magic, geography, people, places, technology, and races of Malazan. This is a big part of the reason that so many people have trouble breaking into the series, as you will find yourself in very unfamiliar settings where everything has to be relearned – and you don’t have an easy guide. While not every element in Malazan’s world building is original, the execution of all these elements almost always is. A great example of this is the Malazan people themselves. One of the major tenets of the Malazan empire comes from the Roman Empire: instead of wiping out defeated cultures, the Malazan empire accepts and absorbs every people it beats. The result is a country that encompasses the best of every culture and compensates for their individual weaknesses. However, this is where most comparisons to the Roman Empire end. Erikson is an anthropologist by trade and this comes out clearly in his writing. The unique people you meet in your journey with these books feel like functioning societies with governments, infrastructure, beliefs, traditions, magic, and identities.

32fa7b14de3052a3f21fd529b3bee083

Jahgut vs. Soletaken by Michael Kormack

On top of this there are at least 10 races, and that doesn’t count the splits among various human groups. Personally my favorite race from the series is the Jaghut. They are tall, broad humanoids with tusks on their lower jaws – often with darker jewel-toned skin. They are multi-jointed, long lived, and have duplicate organs to replace those that fail in their long life. As a people they are highly isolationist, with a tendency to only meet to court and give birth to the next generation. They have a preference for colder climates and a talent for magic. Though many of the other races think of them as calm, intelligent, cunning, vicious, and unkind – the variety of Jaghut you will meet in Malazan make it hard to categorize them. This is the best descriptive I can give you of the Jaghut as a whole, and it took longer than I expected to type up because I am not able to rely on analogies like I normally would. The Jaghut are not really like any people other than themselves. They don’t feel like they are just “trolls, but with a few things changed”. They feel like a distinctly new thing and they helped me find the joy of discovery I got when I read about things like dragons for the first time. On top of all of this, the Jahgut are only one example – there are tons of other races just as original. The people of Malazan are unlike any you have read about and that makes them all the more fun to read about.

Now let’s talk about the magic. I had to step away from this post and do some re-reading because the magic in Malazan is extremely complicated, and I will go into it in detail in a moment, but the key things you should know are its shares some similarity to Tarot cards/suits and it is massive in scale. If you are looking for subtle spells and small tricks you are in the wrong place. Malazan is filled with fire tornadoes, tsunamis of blood, swords made of lightning, undead armies, flying castles, hammers that cause volcanoes to erupt, and more kinds of magical explosives than I have time to list. The magic is big, flashy, and leaves a big impact on the reader. The magic of Malazan has to do with “warrens/paths” – parallel planes of existence with their own magic. If you have a connection to a specific warren or path (connections can be made through bloodline, bargaining with the realms ruler, or annexing a part of its existence to name a few ways) you gain the ability to use its magic. For example, the Path of Ruse is basically one giant ocean run by a mad sea god – and gaining a connection to Ruse gives you access to a complicated mix of water and wind magic that is super useful if you are on a ship.

chisomo-phiri-topper-vs-cowl-by-shadaan-d51x5za

Topper vs. Cowl by Chisomo Phiri

The Malazan series is rare in that its figures of myth and legend can often be found just strolling around. Erikson and and Esslemont do an incredibly job of mixing gods and mortals throughout the series and making the most powerful figures in the world ever present. This is not a series where the divine sit in the clouds afar and judge those beneath them. No, the gods and kings of Malazan get their hands dirty and are on the front lines like everyone else. It makes them feel distinctly human, very relatable, and results in a lot of the previously mentioned flashy magic. Malazan avoids that annoying trope of “two all powerful figures sitting back and glacially accruing power to win a million year struggle”. Instead, Malazan prefers to provide answers to questions such as “what if the god of fire decided he wanted to prove that he could burn hotter than the god of volcanoes and they had a fire throw down?”. The answer to these kinds of questions are magical show downs that persist in my mind as some of the most memorable fantasy I have ever read.

It took me a long time to get a grip on the magic of Malazan, but after enough exposure you will start to see the method to the madness. The real key takeaway is that warrens and paths convey power unto those who hold high positions within their realms and that those positions are almost always in contention. Multiple books revolve around the occurrences of an opening in a warren or path hierarchy, and the ensuing power struggle that inevitably follows. These power struggles are one of the many ways that individuals in Malazan distinguish and endear themselves to the reader. So with that in mind let’s talk about on of the greatest things that Malazan has going for it: the characters.

Part 4: The Characters

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 2: The Plot

PreviouslyPart 1: The Introduction

f13f4f7a5b4ed8c74bd32834ef6e9a6f

Malazan’s plot is huge and sweeping, but let me see if I can help ground you. The first thing to understand about Malazan is that the protagonist isn’t a person, it’s a people. The Malazan Book of the Fallen follows the story of the Malazan empire – and their heroes. The “Book of the Fallen” is a historian’s record of the unsung heroes in Malazan’s history who died trying to make the world a better place – and when the name of the series is essentially “This is a huge eulogy”, I think it should be obvious that a lot of this series is heavy and sad.

The series plot revolves around two overarching subjects, the various conflicts that the Malazan empire is embroiled in all over the world, and a new god who has showed up and is creating tons of problems for everyone (both inside and outside the Malazan empire). The “new” deity, The Crippled God, has upset the delicate balance in the various pantheons of the world and they are deeply unhappy about that. Almost all of the plot of Malazan is driven by gods, and aspiring gods, making plays for power. See, Malazan’s gods are quite interesting in that some of them have divine origins, but others are just mortals who amassed enough power to ascend. I feel obligated to offer a brief explanation of what ascension is and means in the world of Malazan, as Erikson seems to describe it in an intentionally oblique manner throughout the course of the series. Let’s lay down some general ground rules:

  1. To become immortal, one must ascend, or be born a god, or come from another reality, or just be a member of one of a few elder races.
  2. To ascend, one must either amass a lot of magic power, survive a brush with a god, or become a member of a house of a Warren or Path (in brief: Warrens/Paths are essentially planes that are the home and source of types of magic practiced by humans and other races – this will be explain more in the next post).
  3. To become a god, one must become the ruler of a Warren or Path.
  4. Some gods have always existed as fundamental aspects of reality.
  5. Gods can be killed.

gfd9ikf_sti8nmf5d8ggv5qlmw4onvqglgku4wrtyb4There are exceptions to all of the rules I’ve stated above, but you can operate in Malazan keeping those in mind and have a general understanding of what exactly is going on. In Malazan the relative power of everyone is constantly changing, so instead of having the gods on one power level and immortals/mages on another, the power structure is a lot more fluid. What it results in is a whole lot of powerful individuals and deities walking around in everyday life, and all of them view The Crippled God as a new opportunity to raise up their power or cast down their rivals.

This results in a metric ton of small, but dangerous, conflicts cropping up all around the world. The books bounce around to different locations and timelines, documenting events that seem unrelated at first but start to funnel towards one overarching plotline. However, not everything is intertwined, there are literally hundreds of fully fleshed out subplots in the books which is a part of why Malazan feels so much bigger than anything else you will read. The first book follows the stories of the Malazan empire closing out a campaign against the remnants of a rival kingdom, a group of friends trying to win back a title of nobility, a military officer who finds himself on the wrong side of the gods of chance, a covert operation to level a city with an enraged undead sorcerer and a commando insertion to stop said leveling. This is only about half of the plots (thought it covers the biggest ones) in the first book.

There are essentially three sets of stories that all eventually join together, but each cover different parts of the universe. The first you experience (in books one, three, and eight) are the stories of the core Malazan armies as they fight to unify the last remnants of their empire and put down some rebellions. These stories are more focused on military conquest, armed forces, and the culture and traditions of the Malazan empire and the people who inhabit it. The second set of stories (in books two, four, and six) follow a 7yiyg8al90b01number of Malazan irregulars in foreign lands, the Malazan aristocracy, and focus more on outnumbered forces escaping pursuit. The third set of books (five and seven) follows a rival empire of Malazan, the Lether, and how events on a different continent shape the future of Malazan (while also telling the story of the Letherii people themselves). The final two books in the ten book series serve as a nexus point for all the plotlines to meet up, and are incredible. Although I’ve described the three major timelines in the book, and the story elements in each, there are still tons of subplots that don’t fall into these three buckets and many characters jump back and forth between the three story sets. The result is a tale that has no competition for size and scope, and a people and world that feel like they have real lives outside the small amounts of time we spend with each of them.

Telling you the general plots of the back half of the books would be considered spoilers, but I think I am safe to give you a very brief outline of the specific plots of the first five core books:

  • Gardens of the Moon: An elite Malazan commando squad is dispatched to the city of Darujhistan to help/hinder an ascendant who has been baited to crush the city. A group of four unlikely friends in Darujhistan band together to restore the good name of one of them.
  • Deadhouse Gates: An unpopular Malazan army loses their stronghold in The Seven Cities region to a mounting rebellion, called The Whirlwind, against their occupation. They are forced to flee across a desert with a train of refugees in tow and defend them from a much larger army in pursuit
  • Memories of Ice: The elite commandos from book one return to the main Malazan forces for a new conflict. The strongest Malazan armies gather to team up with their long time enemies/rivals, Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake (and their respective forces), to stop an army of cannibals raised by the Pannion Domin. Tensions run high as these long time foes must decide if they can trust each other to stop the incoming hordes.
  • House of Chains: The Whirlwind rebellion from book two has gotten fully up and running and is starting to devastate the land around it. A new army of irregulars is raised around an enigmatic leader, and campaign to suppress the growing unrest.
  • Midnight Tides: Midnight Tides takes place on a new continent, Lether. A jarring transition point in the series, Midnight Tides features an entirely new cast of characters that will eventually meet up with the previous characters later in the series. Here an all powerful empire is quickly realizing that the rumor of a small coalition of seemingly barbaric tribes uniting under an Immortal king might be more than just rumor, and it is definitely a bigger problem than they realized.

While the scope of the plot is incredible, the real power behind Malazan’s uniqueness is the trinity of world, characters, and themes. In each of these categories I would argue Malazan is best in class by a large amount, and hopefully I can convince you as well. Let’s start with the world and culture.

Part 3: The World

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 1: The Introduction

817cteszxqlSo I am going to do something I swore I would never do: review my favorite fantasy series of all time – The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The reason I am breaking my self-promise is the lovely people at Tor sent me copies of the new Malazan spin-off stories to review, Dancer’s Lament and Deadhouse Landing, and I didn’t think I could do them justice without first establishing my feelings on the original series. Unfortunately, writing this piece took forever, so I ended up already talking about the prequels here and here if you are interested.

As to why I promised myself not to review them in the first place, The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a very hard series to talk about simply due to its size, which makes it impossible for a short review to do the series justice. So if I am going to break my promise, I am going to at least go big. This will be the first part in a five part review/overview on what is possibly the greatest fantasy series ever written. Sit down and dig in to find out why.

Part 1: The Introduction
Part 2: The Plot
Part 3: The World
Part 4: The Characters
Part 5: The Themes

Malazan – An Introduction

gardens_of_the_moon_limited_coverBefore we even start talking about what’s in the books I want to talk about Malazan abstractly in the fantasy medium. The Malazan setting is a place that was collaboratively designed by Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont for a roleplaying game they were making in 1980’s (which is how a surprising number of series came about in that era). The core 10 book series are written by Erikson with a number of spin off stories and series written by both Erikson and Esslemont. As of now there are over 20 books in the series when you combine the core and spin offs, and while it may not have the highest book count in fantasy, the size of each mammoth novel more than makes up for it to make Malazan one of the largest fantasy undertakings in existence.

If the end of the last paragraph was intimidating, I have done my job. You should be a little intimidated. I never recommend the series to anyone, not because it is bad, but due to its size and scope. Reading Malazan is not for the faint of heart and I often see fans psyche up their friends to read the first book, Gardens of the Moon, only to watch their friends bounce off Gardens like hitting a concrete wall at full sprint. I prefer to wait for people to find the series on their own, develop their own desire to read it, and then encourage and coax them as they read the first book. But why do people bounce off?

Erikson’s writing style has about as much hand holding as my first middle-school dance. That is to say: none. At the start of Gardens you will feel like you picked up the second book in a series and missed all the backstory. In the first few pages you will be neck deep into global conflicts, espionage, divine machinations, the day to day lives of regular citizens, and more cultures and peoples than you could shake a broken fiddle at. To say that the book starts off at a run would be an understatement; it’s more like trying to tuck and roll during an airplane landing. Imagine, if you will, that you were given a 10 book series about the events of World War 1, with book one starting at the First Battle of the Marne. The level of information you are missing at the start of Gardens is similar to the level you would be missing by not knowing any of the buildup to that battle. There are reasons for everything that is happening that you will learn as the series progresses, but you will lose track of names, places, magics, countries, allegiances, agendas, and weapons (lots of weapons) every few pages in the beginning. You will finish Gardens and only have a vague understanding of what actually happened and an intense feeling that despite having little-to-no grip on the events, they were fucking awesome.

200px-three_gardens_of_the_moonSo why am I selling a book so hard when I just spent several paragraphs describing it as mildly-to-severely unpleasant? Because while you won’t have any idea what is going on, you will meet a cornucopia of unique, memorable, compelling, and lovable characters (I am talking HUNDREDS of characters). You will discover a world that leaps off the pages and into your imagination with such high quality prose that you will forget that you are sitting in your bed and read until 4 am night after night, wondering what you will see next. You will hold the power of gods and magicians in you hands and see the lives and stories of countless heroes and villains pass by both regaled or unnoticed. You will read stories that make your heart break with despair, burn with anger, burst with excitement, and heal with wonder and beauty. You will likely finish the series as a different person than the one who started it, a better person. There are a lot of good fantasy books out there, but none have affected me more deeply and profoundly than Malazan.

I gave Gardens of the Moon a hard time, partially because I think it is unfortunately the weakest of the 10 book series, but you know what? For those that power through the confusing and complex tapestry that is book one and say “you know what, that was pretty good – maybe I will check out the next book Deadhouse Gates”, something magical always happens. Things start to click, systems start to make sense, and you will start to get it. Once you find your ground and start to understand the depth of the plot and themes of this story you will never let it go. You will understand why it is considered by many to be the best fantasy series ever written. Hopefully in my upcoming parts I can give you a peek at what makes this such a powerful series and inspire you to pick it up. Next up, we’ll talk plot.

Part 2: The Plot

The Best Of 2017

2017 is drawing to a close which means it is time to talk about the best books of the year. This year has been the strongest for fantasy and science fiction I can remember in at least a decade. The average quality of the releases this year was astoundingly high, and even though this will be my longest list of top books ever there are still several books that came out this year on my to-do list that I couldn’t get to (such as The Core by Peter Brett and Providence by Ann Leckie). In addition, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 20 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. All that being said let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2017.

20) Spellslinger and Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castell – The first of two authors to grab two spots on one of my lists in a year, de Castell has had an impressive 2017. Right as he ended his Greatcoats series (the other book of his later on this list) he also kicked off a new YA series that has something for everyone. This story about a mage becoming a stage magician was weird, funny, and had surprising depth for something so short. Kellen has a lot of growth in his future, and watching him forge his own path as an Argosi as he passes tests and investigates plagues is something I greatly look forward to. With the first two novels of this six book series already out, it is worth your time.

19) Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee – A sequel to The Ninefox Gambit, this weird and original science fiction series about a ghost master tactician stapled to another soldier is still incredible strong. The Ninefox Gambit was a book where I was really confused as to what was going on the entire time I was reading it, but still having a blast anyway. With Raven Stratagem I feel that the series is starting to shed some of its mystery and go deeper into its plot but the second book did not quite live up to the power of the first in my eyes.The series has an incredible world, deep and interesting characters, and I hope to one day be able to understand how I feel about the plot.

18) Soul of the World by David MealingSoul of the World is a monument to the idea that the most important thing in reading is to have a good time while doing it. A book about three types of magic squaring off, I have never seen more powers and abilities thrown around in a single book except possibly in Malazan. David defied a lot of traditional epic fantasy worldbuilding and wrote a romp about mages who find new spells every 20 pages and in doing so made a fast, thrilling, and captivating story about new and refreshing types of mages trying to save the world. Soul of the World was one of the best things to debut this year, do not let this less-talked-about gem go under your radar.

17) An Echo of Things to Come by James Islington – Beating out the reigning champion Anthony Ryan, James Islington takes the crown for ‘books that I couldn’t have read without an appendix to check every 10 pages’. The sequel to the incredible A Shadow of What Was Lost, Echo is a massive addition to a series about fantasy time travel and time manipulation. Echo has continued to show that The Licanius Trilogy is one of the best epic fantasies to come out in years (which is saying a lot given its company). These books are a maze of intrigue, characters, and self discovery that can be a bit of work to read – but the payoff is worth it. I hope I will find myself able to read the third book without checking who everyone is in the appendix, but either way I am pumped to see how this series pans out.

16) Communication Failure by Joe Zieja – Who says you can’t have humor, heart, and story all in one book? Zieja’s Mechanical Failure was a surprise dark horse last year that impressed me with its incredible humor despite its shallow story. Building on this, Zieja has returned with a sequel with everything that made the first book funny – but more fleshed out with a story I got caught up in. No longer am I just reading these books for their funny scenes and characters, I am now also invested in the plot. This is another book series that I find has snuck beneath everyone’s radar and unless you hate laughing you are doing yourselves a great disservice not checking it out.

15) The Dragon Lord: False Idols by Jon Hollins – Much like Communication Failure, False Idols is the second book in a humor based series where I found the first book (Fool’s Gold) funny but not very deep. Jon pulled out all the stops and addressed every major problem I had with his first book and made False Idols into a book that has both humor and story. When I finished Fool’s Gold I figured I would check out the sequel eventually, when I finished False Idols I moaned at how long I would have to wait for book three. Humorous books are hard, and to make one that is this funny also have a story that kept me coming back to learn more wins this book high marks. The worldbuilding has only gotten better and I want to see every area on Jon’s map before the book is done.

14) Vallista by Steven Brust – So I made the mistake of reading Jhereg earlier this year which resulted in my reading fifteen Brust novels – destroying my review schedule. The one upside of this was that I was ready when the newest Vlad Taltos book, Vallista, came out. A story about a mystery in a magical house, Brust is still somehow keeping the series fresh and new with every book he puts out and I dread the day when there won’t be more of them to look forward to. Vallista continues the Vlad Taltos tradition of tackling lesser explored subjects in fantasy (the subject reveal would be a spoiler so you will have to read it) and the series continues to steadily crawl its way up my top recommended list. These books will constantly surprise and impress you with Brust’s ability to address hard hitting (but important) subjects like divorce and suicidal thoughts but balancing it with humor and moments of levity to not leave you depressed.

13) With Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Why aren’t more of you reading The Song of the Shattered Sands. I keep recommending this series to everyone I know and yet I still feel that it is criminally underread. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a book that that focused on the story and growth of its protagonist, Ceda, and gave you a glimpse of the world in which it is set. If Twelve Kings was a glimpse behind the curtain to the plot and world, With Blood Upon the Sand is the dramatic reveal of a powerful epic fantasy based on Middle Eastern lore. With Ceda firmly established as a character, Blood is free to show us a whole new world that is both shimmering and splendid. The stakes are higher, the antagonists more interesting, and the story more complicated and Blood has only made me want to recommend this series even more.

12) Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson – The king returns. What is there to say about Sanderson that all of you don’t already know? His books are all widely regarded as some of the best in fantasy and I am no exception to their charm. Arcanum was one of the best collections of short stories I have ever read, with all but a single short in the collection receiving top marks from me. However, Arcanum is so much more than a collection of great stories. One of the few books I think should always be bought in hardback, the book is gorgeous with tons of beautiful detail, maps, and illustrations surrounding the stories. In addition, Arcanum felt like the start of something new for Sanderson. We have been seeing hints and indications of his plans for the greater Cosmere story for awhile, but Arcanum felt like we finally found the entrance to the maze that will be Sanderson’s stories for years to come. The book showed just how deep Sanderson’s plans for his universe are and continued his habit of surpassing all my expectations.

11) Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey – Technically out in December of 2016, but I roll December over into the next year. With the next Expanse book coming out in mere days I find myself thinking back to just how consistently excellent this series has been for all the years I have been reading it. Babylon’s Ashes marked the end of the second arc in the Expanse story line, and though this arc was a lot darker than its predecessor, it has always been a series I look to for inspiration. Babylon’s Ashes show that its cast and world are still growing, evolving, and adapting to everything that the universe throws at it. Each book manages to raise the stakes past expectation without ever jumping a space shark. I go into each book genuinely unable to imagine where the series will go next and never come back disappointed, Babylon’s Ashes being no exception. I am currently trying to finish everything on my plate for Persepolis Rising next week, which I am sure will continue the Expanse’s legacy of excellence.

10) The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin – As we enter the top 10 please know that placing these ones were like choosing favorite children. The Stone Sky marks the end of one of the most original and revolutionary series I have ever read. Jemisin’s use of perspective and second person narration have cemented this series as one of the best I have ever read. That being said, I was noticeably less impressed with The Stone Sky compared to its two predecessors. The book felt like it ended a bit abruptly and I was not in love with the climax. That being said, this is still one of the best series, and books, I have ever read and it should be read by everyone – even if I docked it a point for not sticking the landing. It is a unique experience that everyone should have,

9) Sins of Empire by Brian McClellen – One of the most enjoyable things to see is authors grow and address issues you had with them in the past. Brian McClellen wrote The Powder Mage series, a trilogy I enjoyed greatly but always felt like it was evolving as it was written – making the story slightly incoherent. Despite this it still made its way up my recommendations list with its gun based fantasy and interesting characters. Sins of Empire, the first book in Brian’s follow up series, has everything that made me fall in love with his first books with none of the issues that seemed to plague it. Brian seems to have sat down, worked on his organization and planning, and delivered a fact paced and action filled story that is shaping up to be one of my most anticipated reads.

8) The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone – I had an extremely hard time placing this one as I felt that the first half of Ruin suffered a little from pacing issues, but the second half shattered the outer boundaries of my imagination and left me sitting outside staring at the sky and contemplating life. I have always been impressed with The Craft Series and its take on a modern society in a fantasy setting. It is a series that is hard to classify that has reinvented what it means to be a fantasy book multiple times, but Ruin is a cut above the rest. I live and work in New York, and it is rare for a book to be so mind blowing to shock me out of the continuous grind that is my life. This book was a treasured experience and had it been a little less slow at the start likely would have topped the list.

7) Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell – It is hard to follow perfection, and that is just what Tyrant’s Throne had to do in the wake of its predecessor, Saint’s Blood, my number one book of 2016. Although the finale of the Greatcoats did not surpass the third book in the series, it was still one of my favorite books of the year – packed full of all the things that make the series one of my favorite of all time. This final chapter sent off our trio of protagonists in a manner that befitted them: with humor, heart, and life lessons that I feel have made me a better person. It is uncommon for me to be as invested in a character as Falcio and I am glad that his last story held up to the exemplary record established by the first three books in this series. With the close of Tyrant’s Throne, The Greatcoats has cemented its place in my tier one recommendations forever and will always be a series I ask new people if they have read.

6) The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan – I pity those out there who are refusing on principle to check out the Draconis Memoria because they didn’t like how Bloodsong turned out. The Legion of Flame was surprisingly good, and this is from a guy who was expecting excellence. The Waking Fire was a book filled with mysteries that were solved, a world that was explored, and a goal that was reached – leaving me wondering where the series would go next. The second book, The Legion of Flame quickly shows that the map we made in book one was only a fraction of what is in this story and that there is much more to come. With more characters, higher stakes, weirder mysteries, and a story that doesn’t slow down for a second, The Legion of Flame is likely Ryan’s best book yet.

5) Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This is the smartest book I have read this year, and I am including several excellent non-fiction books I read in that ranking. Ada Palmer is the first person I have read to rival Ursula le Guin in knowledge, intelligence, insight, and revolutionary thought. Seven Surrenders was work to read, but every second of that effort felt like it was repaid tenfold. The story in this series feels like a Russian nesting doll, each outer layer revealing more and more underneath. I don’t really understand how Seven Surrenders can tell such a different story than its previous novel, Too Like the Lightning, and feel like it goes toe-to-toe with it on every possible metric. It is extremely apparent that Ada has planned every single sentence of these books to the letter and watching her plots unfold has given me my favorite new science fiction series since The Expanse.

4) Kings of the Wyld by Nicolas Eames – This is the first time a debut novel has gotten this high on one my best-of lists, but this spot is well earned. Kings of the Wyld has everything I love in a fantasy novel and invents new things that I didn’t know I wanted. It evokes all the old tropes I grew up loving and breathes fresh life into them. It has a memorable, unique, and lovable cast that I was heavily invested in. It has an original theme based on 80’s rock which has changed my music tastes. It has an engrossing plot and captivating world that keep you coming back for more. Finally, it has humor and heart that lead to moments of levity, heartbreak, and warmth that had my crying on like page 17 (which is ridiculous). Everyone I know has it as their best debut of the year, go read it.

3) Red Sister by Mark LawrenceRed Sister is everything I have wanted from Mark Lawrence since I read Prince of Thorns years ago. The book is dripping with excitement, each page digging its claws into you and refusing to let go until I finished it in almost a single sitting. Mark has found his stride with me, toning down his usual brutality slightly and giving me a character to root for. Red Sister is an adrenaline rush from start to finish and on more than one occasion had me so immersed that I thought for a moment I was in danger and found myself screaming aloud. The cast, world, powers, story, action are all best in class and I am counting the days until I can get my hands on Grey Sister. I could read 100 more of these books assuming my heart didn’t explode from the strain.

2) Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson – I am a bit late in getting this list out this year and it’s solely because I wanted to finish Oathbringer to know exactly how high to place it. Oathbringer. God I am so happy you are here. I feel like I just had a child that I want to introduce to the world. Stormlight has been the big gun in my arsenal since I started doing recommendations. It is single handedly responsible for convincing at least five people I know the value of books in general. Sanderson is nothing if not consistently excellent, but I am so happy that Oathbringer did not break that trend. If you know what Oathbringer is you are probably going to read it but know that it continues the family tradition of absolute brilliance. What’s really impressive is that something managed to top it.

1) City of Miracles by Robert Bennett – I had a solemn moment back in February when I closed the last page of City of Miracles and realized, ‘nothing is going to beat this’. City of Miracles is a masterpiece of writing that I will reread for years. Its execution in both telling Sigrud’s story and closing The Divine Cities series is flawless and is the only series as a whole I have given perfect scores. The book is simply beautiful. It tells a story that is tragic that left me emotionally wrecked for almost a month after finishing it. There are a few passages in the book that make me emotional thinking about. Normally this wouldn’t be enough to surpass the competition but there is something about City of Miracles that is uncomfortably real. The struggles are awful and they feel like they are happening to you or someone you love. Bennett achieves all of this without feeling like he is trying to make a point or break your heart, but instead just feels like he is giving you a window into the realities of what the world is like good and bad. And dealing with the truth that bad things can happen to good people, or that you can make mistakes that can’t be forgiven, is awful. Miracles doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t let you escape to fantasy, and it made me evaluate my own life in ways that were scary. However, while Miracles evokes that harshness of life, it also paints the future with some hope. It is a cracked, tarnished, and flawed hope – but a hope that feels beautiful for its honesty. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read.

-Andrew