In a very strange twist of events this week I ended up talking to my father, who doesn’t read much fantasy,for several hours about Lord of the Rings. He was interested in some of the characters and wanted to talk through their motivations for a project he was doing. Over the course of the conversation, I was reminded just how powerful and well written Lord of the Rings is, as well as just how high a bar it set for all the books that followed. This is why The Ember Blade, by Chris Wooding (a favorite author of Quill for his Ketty Jay series), is such an accomplished book. If you heard me mention this book before, it was probably from our “best of” list earlier this month (found here), where The Ember Blade slide into 19th place as the final book I read this year before making the list.
As I mentioned in my brief description, The Ember Blade is not a particularly innovative book. The book follows a group of adventurers, who fall into the range of classic fantasy classes (ranger, thief, warrior, druid, bard, etc.) as they embark on a quest to find a legendary sword. The book is told from a number of POV’s, but primarily follows Aren – a fairly typical “farm boy with a destiny”. The plot feels like a reimagining of The Fellowship of the Ring, where a group of unlikely companions come together to do something with a relic of power to save the world. However, despite its clear similarities to the grandfather of all fantasy, The Ember Blade never feels like an out-and-out copy. Instead, the book feels like a new epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into, while paying tribute to the series that started the genre. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head.
The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. The conflict revolves around understandable tensions between two nations: The Krodan Empire and Ossia. Ossia was conquered and colonized by a martially superior Krodan Empire and currently is occupied and governed by the aforementioned nation. The Ember Blade, the namesake of the book, is a sword that essentially works like Excalibur (conveying kingship onto whoever holds it), and our group of characters set out to steal it and start a revolution. The relations between the two nations are interesting and nuanced and both Krodan and Ossia feel like they have a well-developed identity and culture. In addition, the magic in the book is often subtle (much like LotR), but when it is present it is both imaginative and exciting. It really is a world you can get lost in, which is good because there is a metric butt-load of time devoted to worldbuilding. Have I mentioned this book is absolutely massive at close to 900 pages? We will come back to that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the cast.
I honestly expected Wooding to trope out on his cast. With such a large set of characters, it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them. Which again, is good, because they would need to be engrossing to carry your attention through the 900 pages.
The only problem I really had with The Ember Blade was its (surprise, surprise) colossal length. It is really hard for me to objectively judge if the book was too long. Longer books often present difficulties for reviews as they eat away at the time that could have been spent reading shorter books to make additional content. That being said, I do think that the first 20% of the book is a bit drawn out due to slow pacing. The actual story of the book doesn’t start until page 200 – but those 200 pages are still perfectly enjoyable chapters that establish the cast. It is really that I just found myself much more engrossed in the book for the back 600 pages compared to the first 200. However, I firmly believe that this book is worth your time despite its huge size and slow start.
To reaffirm what Wooding himself said, The Ember Blade is a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective. The book does an incredible job of melding everything that made Lord of the Rings incredible with all of the lessons the genre has learned since to create a modern classic. Mark my words, The Ember Blade will rise to a must-read on most fantasy lists in the next ten years so if you want to be ahead of the curve go check it out as soon as possible.
The end of 2018 is finally upon us, which means it’s time to talk about the best books of the year. 2017 was one of the best years of Sci-fi and Fantasy I have lived to talked about, so it is no surprise that 2018 had some difficulty following its incredible performance. That being said, despite being a weaker year there are still a number of fantastic books that came out this year. If you need gift ideas for a friend or family member that likes fantasy or sci-fi, look no further than any of the entries on this list. As always, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 21 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. Without further adieu, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2018.
21) The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith by Jon Hollins – When I first came across the Dragon Lords series, it was clear that I had found a diamond in the rough in need of a little polish. However, while the first book had some flaws, Jon Hollins showed massive improvement in the sequel last year, and the finale this year. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. Bad Faith has a lot of laughs, a lot of failures, and a boatload of people learn how to be slightly less garbage. Jon Hollins is improving as an author with every book that he writes and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to next.
20) The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – A sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant, this unique series focuses on cultural warfare and how to crush one’s enemies without lifting a sword. Monster had some small pacing problems, but they failed to detract from the book’s increasingly complex and fascinating world and thrilling political intrigue. Despite an almost entirely new cast, Monster continues to draw readers in with characters you love to hate and hate to love. Dickinson’s prose is some of the best in recent times and his worldbuilding is both complex and compelling. The ending of Monster gives only a small hint of where the story will go next and readers will be hotly anticipating the next book until it is in their hands.
19) The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – The only book on the list we haven’t had a chance to review yet, and one of the few non-sequels, this mammoth piece of writing is a call back to classical quest fantasy. There is little innovating about The Ember Blade. It is a coming of age story of a hero with a destiny on a quest for a magic sword. However, just because the book doesn’t have a completely original plot, doesn’t mean it is bad (there is a reason things become tropes). With a relatable cast, a surprising amount of humor, and descriptive prose that brings the world to life, The Ember Blade is an easy book to get lost in. The only thing that keeps the book from placing higher on this list is its extremely slow pacing. The Ember Blade is a fantastic tribute to classical fantasy with a Wooding twist that makes it all the better.
18) A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – Drama is the name of the game in this larger than life debut novel. Big characters, big fights, big magic, and a big plot – this book is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The cast starts out rough and unlikable, but is quickly chiseled down into characters you can dig into. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. The book is an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction, and I wish more people would try similar genre mashups. Big Ship is the strongest debut I read in 2018 and I can’t wait to start reading the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, when it comes out later this month.
17) Blood of the Gods by David Mealing – Mealing’s massive debut book, Soul of the World, was a top contender on the 2017’s best of list. He has followed it up with an equally massive sequel less than a year later that continued to knock my socks off. Blood of the Gods continues Mealing’s philosophy of go big or go home. When Mealing first put out Soul of the World I believed he had decided to focus more on telling an imaginative story than on one that was polished and streamlined. After reading Blood of the Gods, I have realized that he was playing a long con, and that he is actually somehow doing both. With over 40 magical powers, this book is chaos incarnate and I can only imagine how much planning must have gone into a storyboard and world of this scope. Mealing has managed to get me to reassess his skill as an author with his second book, Blood of the Gods. While I initially thought he was a crazy imaginative author who might need a little polish; now I think he is a crazy imaginative author who clearly knows what he is doing. You won’t find another author who can pack more magic into a page than David Mealing.
16) Port of Shadows by Glen Cook – This might be a controversial pick, but I can’t help who I am, and who I am is a massive TheBlack Company fanboy. Glen Cook is one of my absolute favorite authors, and his newest entry into his pivotal The Black Company series is a welcome one. A book for longtime fans of the series, Port of Shadows answers a number of lingering questions leftover from the plot of the original books. It adds a layer of depth to characters I already loved, and I really appreciate that his book exists. Port of Shadows has all the hallmarks of a Cook classic: an unreliable narrator, a visceral brutality, a depressing tone, and more mystery than a cryptogram inside a labyrinth. Those of you who haven’t read The Black Company will likely want to steer clear of this one, but those of you who have – welcome home.
15) The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – This book guaranteed itself a spot on this list by making me say the words “I really liked the love triangle”. I don’t even know where to start with The Defiant Heir. The sequel to The Tethered Mage, Caruso’s second book surpasses its predecessor in every possible way. It has a great cast, intrigue that will keep you up late reading, and a world full of magic that is fun to explore. However, what elevates The Defiant Heir to one of the best books of 2018 are two things. First, a dedication to a theme that we don’t see enough of in the fantasy genre – the idea that with power comes responsibility (#spiderprincess?). And second, a love triangle that I an genuinely invested in (something that has never happened before) and that explores the first theme I just mentioned. The two men in the triangle represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. It was a bold choice on Caruso’s part that paid off in spades and made this one of the best reads of 2018.
14) Charmcaster & Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell – Fun is king. One of two double entries this year, de Castell managed to put out two books in his Spellslinger series that claimed a spot together. There is really nothing more to say about these books than reading them was some of the most fun I had this year. The series continues to be charming, imaginative, engrossing, and easy to read. Reading these books gives me the same cathartic rush that I felt when reading Harry Potter as a child, and there are very few books that can come close to that feeling. De Castell has continued to prove that he is one of the best fantasy authors of this generation and that anything he touches is almost guaranteed to be worth your time. If you haven’t managed to get your hands on Spellslinger yet there are now four great books to dig into, but be prepared to stay up all night reading them back-to-back.
13) Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron – Speaking of fun. A large chunk of my free time this year was spent burning through all five Heartstriker books by Rachel Aaron. Although only Last Dragon Standing can make it onto this list (due to when it was published) collectively reading this series was one of the best parts of my year. Aaron has made a fun urban fantasy that moves at breakneck speed and has more delicious family drama than a soap opera. Unfortunately, a large part of the appeal of these books is their fun plot – making them very hard to review or talk about. However, take note of the fact that Last Dragon Standing managed to claim the spot 13th best book in 2018 and use that as a guide as to whether or not it is worth your time.
12) Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun closes out one of the weirdest science fiction series I have ever read. While the first two books in the series were extremely confusing fun, Revenant Gun finally takes us behind the curtain in Oz and shows the reader what is actually going on in the books. Lee has proven that there is method behind the madness and you can trust him to deliver an incredible reading experience, even if you don’t quite understand what is going on. Revenant Gun gives a great send off to some of the most interesting and lovable characters I have read about in the last few years and solidifies The Machineries of Empire series as a top pick in the science fiction genre.
11) AVeil of Spears by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The Song of Shattered Sand is shaping up to be one of my top epic fantasies ever. Every year Beaulieu puts out a new gargantuan book and each year it delivers an excellent read. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story. The stakes are getting higher, the world is getting cooler, and I am growing more and more attached to the characters. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizarro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story.Veil is book three of six in this giant sandy epic, and the series really feels like it has hit its stride. There is no better time to jump into Beaulieu’s incredible series and I will continue to advertise it for free until everyone picks up a copy.
10) Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells – Welcome to the top 10 of 2018. Up first we have everyone’s favorite AI finishing out her last two novellas. I love Murderbot. I love her… them… it… you get the idea. Last week when we were making out list of our favorite female protagonists there was a serious discussion if Murderbot counted, because she is one of our favorite protagonists of all genders. The Murderbot Diaries have just been one delightful surprise after another. Novellas this short have no right being as powerful, fun, and poignant as full length novels – but they are. Wells has a real talent for characters, and her murder and media-loving AI is still one of the most relatable characters I read about this year. Murderbot is now getting full length books due to their rampant popularity, so if you haven’t checked out these novellas yet you are doing yourself a grave disservice.
9) Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence – Grey Sister had huge shoes to fill following our #3 pick from last year, Red Sister. While this less vibrant sequel did not quite live up to its predecessor’s glory, Grey Sister still continued the Lawrence tradition of delivering pulse-pounding action in an enigmatic and engrossing world. Grey Sister has a laser-focused plot and the pacing of a dragster with an open throttle. It introduces us to new POVs, such as Abbess Glass, that do a lot to expand the scope of the story and help the reader grow closer to the collective cast of the book. I tore through this stellar sequel in less than two days and I am counting the hours until I get my hands on the final book in the trilogy.
8) The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan – All of the top ten books this year were hard to place, but The Empire of Ashes was a particular thorn in my side. Ryan has been slightly controversial for a number of years due to the ending of his Raven’s Shadow series. However, I don’t think there is a single reader who will argue with me when I say Ryan absolutely nailed the finale of his second trilogy. The Empire of Ashes delivers an unbelievably climatic end to a series that has been a rollercoaster from start to finish. Lizanne might be the most badass protagonist I have ever read about and she is only one of a number of brilliant characters that litter this series. Each book in the DraconisMemoria has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot, is a step up from his past work. The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and that’s after it started off strong.
7) Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey – As always, I like to roll the December Expanse books over into my next years list, as they are definitely one of the best books of any year they come out in, but have a hard time making it onto lists due to their release dates. Persepolis Rising marks the start of the final story arc in the Expanse series, and despite still being two books away I am not ready for this ride to end. Persepolis Rising was one of the most emotionally stressful books I have ever read. I have been reading this series close to a decade now and I am heavily invested in the characters and plot. Watching this behemoth of a series slowly maneuver into its final arc is like watching the health of a loved one slowly deteriorate. The book is amazing, but it is starting to feel like I am saying goodbye to a lifelong friend and I am just not ready yet.
6) Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – It takes a lot of guts to take a tried and true cast of characters and throw them out the window, but that is exactly what Nicholas Eames did with his second book Bloody Rose. Eames decided to ditch his characters from his previous novel, Kings of the Wyld, in favor of a fresh cast and a new story. It is a true testament to his skill and imagination as an author that Bloody Rose is just as good as its hugely popular predecessor. Bloody Rose once again demonstrates Eames supreme talent for weaving themes into books. Each of the characters embodies a different form of relationship with their parents and they collectively speak to the many flavors of hardship that arise between parent and child. All of this is done in a magical setting, with charismatic characters, satisfying combat, and an engrossing plot that will keep you reading late into the night. With two brilliant books out in two years, I think it is safe to say that Eames is one of the best up and coming authors and a man you will want to keep an eye on in the years to come.
5) Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan – Another year another step closer to the top of a best of list. Wrath of Empire shows McClellan continues to improve with every book he writes. This bookis the realization of all the potential that the Powder MageTrilogy had and hopefully a herald for a new caliber of McClellan books. Wrath has flawlessly completed the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought-provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is one of the strongest books of 2018.
4) Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett – I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. The first book in a brand new series, Bennett introduces readers to a new cast to fall in love with and a host of new imaginative terrors to keep them up at night. The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Foundryside is a really good book, and effortlessly slides into the number four spot on my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth everyone’s time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.
3) Circe by Madeline Miller – For anyone who knows about Circe, its high place on this list should be no surprise. I have read a lot of Odysseus books, many of them incredible, but Circe is likely the best. Circe is the kind of book that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. The power of this book is in the prose, which might be some of the best I have ever read. Miller’s language is on par with the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing. Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career.
2) The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – Smart, imaginative, otherworldly, and a perfect commentary on society today – The Will to Battle is my second favorite book to come out in 2018. The Terra Ignota books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. The plot of these books is like a 20 dimensional onion, each new layer revealing new concepts and ideas that I have to sit down and work to grasp. Reading The Will to Battle felt like going to a job, but one that I loved and was wildly passionate about. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. The Will to Battle sets up the series perfectly for an explosive conclusion and I have no doubt that this unique science fiction series will be considered a inspirational classic in years to come.
1) Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – If I am being honest, 2018’s competition for best book wasn’t even close. It was always going to be Record of a Spaceborn Few. I really don’t have the space to express how much I loved this book in this huge list, so I implore you to please take a moment to read the review in the link. Record is a quiet, contemplative, and slow story about people who make their lives in space. The book moves like a beautiful symphony, each character telling a personal story that weaves together into a beautiful whole. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. There are no end of the universe threats lurking in this book. Instead, Record speaks to struggles all of us have gone, and are going, through and sets them in a wildly imaginative and engrossing science fiction setting. It has the wonder and creativity of any of the best sci-fi books I have read, with a cast of characters that rival any of the best traditional fiction I have read. This book affected me more emotionally than anything else I have read this year, smashing my heart with character tragedies and stitching it back together with victories. Record of a Spaceborn Few is The Quill to Lives’s #1 book of 2018 and I urge you to all go find a copy.