The Best Of 2015

The time has come for ‘Best of 2015’ threads and to reflect on all the wonderful books I enjoyed over the year. This piece will address my top 10 reads published in 2015, but is missing some of the amazing older books I read throughout the year. I read roughly 80 books this year, about half of which (40) were published in 2015, and the following books are my top picks. I found the new releases this year surprisingly less powerful than many sequels. Last year I gave over half the top 10 spots to new releases, whereas this year only three made the cut. It has been a year of very powerful sequels, in particular second installments of series. With that said, let’s talk about some of 2015’s gems and please note that some of the blurbs link to my full reviews of the books.

 

2354736410) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell – one of my top five books from 2014 was Traitor’s Blade, the first of the Greatcoat series, for its incredible humor, emotional impact, and great cast. The follow-up, Knight’s Shadow, was a great addition that explored some large growth in the trinity of main characters, while still keeping the same powerful voice and tone from book one. The plot evolved nicely and the general quality of the book stayed consistent with Traitor’s Blade, but there was slightly less emotional impact in the second novel. With two demonstrations of consistent talent I am eagerly awaiting De Castell’s third entry, Saint’s Blood, in 2016.

 

234444829) The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – The first of the three entries on the list to not be sequels. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of cultural warfare and a young girl whose home is eaten by an oppressive republic in her youth. To fight back, she becomes a cog in the great machine that is the republic and tries to bring it down from the inside. While suffering from some pacing issues, The Traitor Baru Cormorant brought a ton of new ideas to fantasy warfare and is a very different journey than your typical fare. The book has a fast pace start and end, but suffers a little in the middle. Regardless I am looking forward to more from Seth Dickinson.

 

twelve-kings_final-sm2-200x3008) Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The first of a new epic fantasy based in an Arabian setting. The story follows a girl named Cena, a gladiator in Sharakhai, as she tries to survive in an incredible city ruled by twelve kings in the center of a desert. The book had a very slow start but picked up pace rapidly after the first 20%, continuing all the way to the last page. With Bradley having found his groove I cannot wait to pick up the sequel to see where the story will go.

 

51pmvmp67ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_7) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis – I read a lot of good historical fiction this year, with The Mechanical taking the win by a small margin. With its original setting, steampunk science, and character growth it was a refreshing read that distinguishes it from its competition. The story of The Netherlands and France has had me looking for historical fiction of a wider subject than WWII or England. The sequel, The Rising, releases next week and I will be picking it up immediately.

 

208838476) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan – The only finale to make the list, The Autumn Republic finished off a series I don’t feel close to done with yet. McClellan’s world is gigantic, and with the close of this series I feel like we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Despite the ending feeling a little too quick, McClellan has finished a series to be proud of that maintains a high quality and exciting ride the entire way through.

 

 

61j8lp2b-eol-_sy344_bo1204203200_5) Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey – The Expanse novels are rapidly becoming my favorite purchase every summer (as they are released consistently every year in June). This series has now released five out of its nine novels and I have been blown away every single time. Every novel follows new perspectives, new challenges, and pushes the conflicts to new heights. I do not know how Ty Franik and Daniel Abraham are going to top the levels of panic and excitement Nemesis Games gave me, but I have said that about every single release. The books continue to both be a continuation of the greater series, and almost completely self contained at the same time. If you haven’t picked up any of The Expanse series yet, or have been waiting to read more, I highly encourage you to do so.

 

157044594) Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Published early in the year, lots of people have overlooked this sleeper. Steelheart, a novel about powerless humans hunting super heroes, was a surprise hit with me. I decided to read it on a whim, despite not loving the premise,  and was blown away by the result. That being said, the first novel was very self contained and reached a pretty definite conclusion at the end, giving me a lot of concern where Sanderson was going to take the series or if it could remain good. The fact that Firefight is so much better than Steelheart was very hard to process at first. Sanderson takes his winning formula from book one, and makes it deeper, more intense, and simply a lot cooler. Sanderson’s talent for weird magic is on point with his collection of interesting super powers and the plot has a lot more emotional weight than it did in book one. The finale, Calamity, comes out next February and is one of my most anticipated books for 2016.

 

233463353) The Price of Valour by Django Wexler – The Shadow Campaigns keeps creeping up my lists the more and more I think about it. The third installment of five, The Price of Valour is proof that Wexler can learn from his mistakes and has no shortage of imagination. The Thousand Names, Wexler’s debut, was an incredible flintlock fantasy about a remote military campaign that was fast, exciting, and surprising complex. Its sequel, The Shadow Throne, was an attempt to expand the world from the first book and double the cast. While The Shadow Throne had a metric ton of new things I liked, it also felt like it lacked the exciting pace and style of Wexler’s Debut;however, The Price of Valour has it all. With the pacing and intensity of book one, and the amazing cast from book two, the third Shadow Campaign novel is the strongest so far and continues to unravel the gigantic web of mystery that covers the series.

 

220552832) Half the World by Joe AbercrombieHalf the World is the strangest book on this list to me. The second novel of The Shattered Seas trilogy, it stands miles above its prequel and sequel. Half a King (book one) and Half a War (book three) were both good Abercrombie novels (for those of you who know what that means) but neither is close to the level of Half the World. The second novel follows two perspectives, Brand and Thorn, that play off of one another in a truly magical way. It is the story of two people finding their place in the world, realizing who they are, and going on a journey. I have never seen better use of multiple perspective and the book led me on a emotional roller coaster from start to finish. This book is definitely one of Abercrombie’s finest pieces of writing.

 

91ishiycq1l1) Golden Son by Pierce BrownRed Rising is a really enjoyable book. It simultaneously steals all the things that are good from series like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones,  and Ender’s Game while also creating both an imaginative and original setting and an exciting plot. It could simultaneously be described as a guilty pleasure, and an imaginative look as space colonization and class segregation. Red Rising had a pretty damn good thing going for it at the end of book one, and sets itself up to just reuse the incredibly powerful formula again in the sequel Golden Son… and then Pierce Brown decided to throw all of that momentum out the window and go in a completely different direction. The result is a book that felt like a massively different experience from Red Rising with the connecting theme being that both books are incredibly good. I was so confused as to why Pierce Brown would ditch his Red Rising gold mine until I was 10% in and read the entire book in one sitting. This book made me feel like a child again, discovering the wonder of reading for a first time and blowing my mind at every twist and turn. The finale, Morning Star, comes out in February and I highly recommend you check the series out.

Perception – Judging A Book By Its Cover

First impressions are important. Unfortunately, we often judge people in the first 3 seconds we meet them. While many of our initial impressions are wrong, it does not change the fact that our first moments with a person can color how we see all subsequent interactions. I find that the same idea can be applied to books. In my mind, there are three major categories that color our initial impressions of books: the title, the cover art, and the blurb. Each has their own pitfalls and nuances, but at the end of the day their goal is to get potential readers to pick up and open the book.

Book Titles – Books are frequently either dismissed or picked up  based on their title. There has been a great deal of research (here, here, and here and good examples) about the redundancy of fantasy titles, and, as you can see, there are a group of words that appear frequently in fantasy titles. These words often seem to be picked because they are both descriptive of the book and because they seem “cool”. Unfortunately, lots of people have similar ideas of what sounds cool and it often results in situations like I found myself in last year where I was reading Promise of Blood, Blood Song, and A King’s Blood around the same time. In addition to making it hard to keep books straight, sometimes names sound so cliche that I am naturally inclined to avoid them. While it is important to pick evocative titles that represent the story well, authors should be careful to choose a title that doesn’t make people internally groan or roll their eyes when they read it.

Cover Art – The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because that is exactly what people do. I find books to read in a plethora of ways, but one of my favorites is to go to bookstores and look at the various book jackets  on display and pick up ones that look intriguing. I have read some truly terrible books (which will go un-named) because the author was smart enough to hire a great cover artist. Conversely, I held out on reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan for forever because of how ugly I found the covers to be (a mistake). Different art appeals to different people, but the most popular covers tend to make strong artistic statements. Some great examples of fantastic cover art are: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, The Expanse by James Corey and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The First Law books are both incredible to look at and to touch with their textured covers that look like damaged parchment. The Expanse series is one of the few books I have seen to go with bold neon colors in their titles (on the spine) with beautiful sci-fi backdrops. Brilliance stands out with it unconventional minimalist design that just stands out among all the other titles on a shelf. The books do an incredible job of getting noticed and that goes a long way towards getting picked up and opened.

Descriptive Blurbs (scientific name) – It is interesting to me to see the various strategies authors undertake when describing their book. I find that a surprising number of books fail to talk about their unique hooks and angles in the small space provided. Learning that a book can offer me an experience unlike I have ever had is almost a surefire way to get me to pick it up (for example, see my post about Daniel Abraham’s books). However, when providing this information it is all about the showing and not the telling. Many books boldly claim to be one of a kind on their backside, but in practice that rarely holds true. On the other hand, authors like Daniel Abraham, who talk about how their books are about godlike poets, spark imagination and wonder. If you can show me something new, it goes a long way to picking up your book.

I will leave you with a story. I recently finished A Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington (an author I was unfamiliar with). The title, cover, and blurb did not impress me, but I got it for free from Amazon Prime so I picked it up anyway. After sitting on the book for a long time, I felt obligated to read it, no matter how bad it was. After drudging through a painful start I started to actually enjoy it. By the end of the book I was really loving it and ended the story thrilled and excited for the next installment. Upon finishing, I went back and re read the beginning hoping to figure out what was wrong with it. Doing so, I realized that the beginning was fine but my expectations that the book would be bad greatly colored my initial read through of the book. With more confidence in the author and a better mindset going it, I enjoyed the book a lot more.

Daniel Abraham And The Importance Of Creativity

This month my book club read Leviathan Wakes, I just finished reading The Widow’s House, and I am about to start reading Nemesis Games. All three of these books were written or co-written by the author Daniel Abraham, so I thought it might be a good time to take a moment to appreciate one of the weirder and more creative fantasy/sci-fi authors out there.

As I have already said, Daniel Abraham is a strange writer. He has three main bodies of work so far that are all wildly different from most novels in a wonderful way. Abraham is not the best writer I have read. His characters can tend to fall a little flat, his prose needs a little work, and the plethora of other attributes that make up excellent writing can sometimes be a little absent. However, when you read his work you likely won’t even notice these flaws because each of his books are so interesting, exciting, and strange that they will distract you from any problems the books may have.

20350308Lets start with the weirdest of his work, The Long Price Quartet. These books are about… well it is almost impossible to describe. My best one line summary would be “battle poets” but this falls woefully short. The books take place in a world where abstract ideas can be captured via poetry into deities that give the writer complete dominion over that idea. An example of these deities is Seedless, the first one we meet in book 1. Seedless encoumpasses the idea of “lacking a seed” and while that may sound obvious, he can do a number of incredible things. He brings untold wealth to the city of his home by speeding up crop harvest with his ability to remove seeds. But he also represent a weapon of mass destruction to keep foreign armies away because he could make an entire continent barren (wombs without seeds) with a thought.

However, there is a drawback to having these god-ideas as your slave. The deities are always trying to escape the poem that imprisoned them, constantly trying to kill the men and women who captured them. This coupled with the fact that an idea can only be captured by a poem once makes the lives of the poets awful as they either try to find new ideas no one has thought of to bind, or hold the idea they have bound and not get murdered. The long price in the title refers to the cost of a poet’s failing, the cost being a horrific death somehome relating to the abstract idea in their poem. The books continue to get stranger as they go and are truly one of the most unique reads I have ever had.

Next up we have The Dagger and Coin, an epic fantasy about the power of money and subterfuge. This five book story is about a dangerous cult that starts sweeping a world and the people who fight to stop it. The book is heavily focused on the economy and the inner workings of finance. That may sounds dull to some of you, but I promise that Abraham finds a way to make working at a bank house seem exciting and eventful. In addition to its economic focus, the book is set in a world with not one, not two, but thirteen races with major differences; in addition to there also being a 14th race of dragons. Abraham actually published a small piece on the taxonomy of the races that can be found here.

There is a lot of moral grey space in this series, and I honestly find myself relating to one of the “villains” of the story more than anyone else. I would say that these books contain Abraham’s strongest characters out of his series, as all the different players in the book feel like by products of their environment and behave and think in very different ways. The books also go out of their way to defy typical fantasy tropes, such as being a “child of destiny”. If you are looking for something new and different, but are uncomfortable straying as far from the path as the long price, I recommend this series.

Finally, we have my personal favorite of the lot, The Expanse series. The Expanse is written both by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and is a going to be a 9 part space opera. By space opera, I mean a sci fi novel that focuses more on human emotion and interaction that hard science fiction. Each of the books is devoted to different major themes that are explored both literally and metaphorically in the books. The themes cover some topics such as Human arrogance and mastery of the universe, unrestrained science, utilitarianism, manifest destiny, and the list goes on. The books are wildly creative and paint a vivid picture of a human race that has colonized the solar system and slowly redefined allegiances based on the planet of origin.

Leviathan Wakes (the first book) was the single highest rated book my club has read so far (with my personal rating of a 10/10). The appeal comes from all the things I said above, but also from the fact that the stories are probably the most intense and exciting books I have ever read. They are the very definition of edge of the seat excitement and I found I was having literal adrenaline rushes as I read them. The first book revolves around a missing girl, an international conspiracy, and an unknown pathogen reeking havoc on the solar system. From this starting platform the story devolves into further and further mess as people fight to survive in the crazy universe that Abraham and Franck have written.

Daniel Abraham is not the best writer I have ever read, but he is certainly one of the most creative. This creativity expanded the scope of my imagination while reading books, which is not a small feat. If you feel like you keep reading the same book, or you are looking for something to go beyond the bounds of your imagination, or you just think any of the concepts I described were cool, I implore you to read something by Daniel Abraham.