2019 has been an odd reading year for me; I think that my reading tastes have been shifting quite significantly. I no longer read the massive amount of YA that I used to, and I’ve been reading quite a bit more fantasy. I feel like I’ve gone back to my roots, as my top three reads of the year are all straight-up secondary world fantasy, which has always been my favorite genre.
For the first half of the year I was…not in a slump, exactly, because I was still reading a lot, but I wasn’t really feeling super passionate about a whole lot of books, which is why you’ll see that I only have eight books on my list (out of 88 total read), with a good chunk of honorable mentions.
However, that means that the books that made the list are ones that I truly loved, books that pulled me out of my semi-slump and utterly captivated me, books that will stay with me for a long time.
Under the Pendulum Sun
“My mind was dwelling again on my own unreality, believing I would ripple and rip at his touch. I was that spirit from the moors that he supposed so long ago, here to tempt him and then disappear when the sun burnt away the morning mist. And then, his hands were on me again, strong, demanding. I revelled in his force; it proved to me that I was not breaking, that I would not shatter. He tightened his grip on my hips and I gasped. Fleetingly, I felt real.”
Oddly, this is a four star book, and that is mainly because this is one of the most maddeningly erudite and slow-paced books I’ve ever read. It’s written in the fashion of a Gothic novel, so it is more focused on character and aesthetic than plot, and I struggled to understand all of the theological references in it. I never thought this book would end up on my favorites list, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It gave me such a profound book hangover. I feel like I want to talk about it forever, because it’s so complex and multi-layered, and it also features one of my favorite tropes of all time, consensual brother/sister incest (yes, I’m trash, blah blah, don’t @ me, etc). I really think this is the kind of book you could write academic articles on, because there’s so much going on here, and so much went right over my head, but I am never going to forget about this book.
Emily A. Duncan
“When he stepped past her, a smile flickered at the edges of his lips. There was darkness at the corners, something evil just underneath the surface, sinister. He turned and grinned at her, monstrous but beatific, holding out his hand, darkness gone. Maybe she’d just imagined it. She took his hand.”
Oddly, another four-star book, and the reason for that is that I found there were too many unanswered questions. I don’t like being confused and I don’t like not having answers, so I was frustrated with the very ambiguous ending (and yes yes I know it was meant to be confusing and opaque but still). Other than that, this book appealed to me on a deep spiritual level; I loved the aesthetic, I loved the romance, and I loved the cosmic horror aspects having to do with deities. This book is so unabashedly cool and leans hard into its Goth aesthetic and I am so excited for the next book.
Serpent & Dove
“As they are now also your enemies, I must offer a piece of advice: ’tis dangerous to meddle in the affairs of witches. Forget your vengeance. Forget everything you’ve learned about this world of shadows and magic. You are wildly outmatched and woefully inadequate in the face of these women. Death is the kindest of their torments – a gift bestowed only to those who earned it.”
Odd that I have two YA books here when I just said I’m reading less YA, but that means I’m much more discerning about the YA I pick up. This in particular was just pure, unadulterated fun. So much damn fun. It’s rare for me to come across a fantasy book that’s unputdownable, but that’s what this book was; I was hooked from the first page. I love Mahurin’s writing style and I loved the faux-French fantasy setting. This was just such a good time.
My Sister the Serial Killer
“It’s because she is beautiful, you know. That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.”
Another very fun book! This one is also full to the brim with dark humor and incisive social commentary, and it’s short and compact and also unputdownable. I rarely find myself wishing a book was longer, but I would read a tome about these two characters and their lives and backstories.
Sorcerer to the Crown
The True Queen
“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.”
Though these two books are very different from one another, and were written years apart, I’m including them together because they feature the same world and the same distinctive writing style, which is a sort of cheeky, faux-Victorian, old-fashioned, elegant style. These books take place in an alternate Regency England with fairies, but the main characters are people of color, in both installments. They’re hilarious and subversive and so much good fun.
Steel Crow Saga
“When you’re on the worst kind of job, audacity’s the only thing that’ll get you through it: being willing to do something so stupid, there’s no way anyone could see it coming.”
This book wrenched me right out of a pretty bad reading slump from the very first page. There was something about the writing style that struck a chord with me (and reminded me quite a bit of my own writing style, which is a very weird feeling). I fell in love with the characters immediately. This book has so much style and charm.
Empire of Sand
She managed to catch herself on her hands before her skull met the floor. Then she bowed to the floor, her forehead to the cool marble. She allowed herself to tremble; feigned being a thing bent and broken by his cruelty. She did not have her jewels or her fine clothes, but she had this power, at least: she could give him a simulacrum of what he desired from her. And hold her crumbling strength tight. Let him think he had broken her. As long as he believed he already had, as long as she fooled him, he would not succeed in truly doing so.
This is the sort of book I might call literary fantasy because it’s slow, quiet, and beautifully written. I read this in two days and I remember just kind of sinking into it and needing time to pull myself back out, because I was so immersed in the worldbuilding and the romance. Also, the villain in this is utterly harrowing.
The Gutter Prayer
“Gods – all gods, I think – are just spells that keep going. Like waterwheels powered by the passage of souls, maybe. Prayer strengthens them, and so does residuum, the portion of the soul that remains in the corpse after death. The gods are not omniscient or omnipotent, just very different from us. More powerful in some ways, but locked into patterns of behaviour they cannot change, so they’re not really sentient, I suppose. Saints are points of congruency between our world and theirs.”
My absolute favorite book of the year. Let me quote from my review: “There is a plethora of adjectives I might use to describe the worldbuilding – Lovecraftian, Steampunk, Victorian – but none of them truly do justice to the bizarre mash-up of influences that have come to create the city of Guerdon and the world it resides in. This book features actual living gods, warped saints, eldritch abominations, terrifying religious cults, alchemical magic, plenty of body horror, and a Godswar threatening to consume the entire world.” I love me some dark, eldtritich high fantasy, and the deities in this are truly disturbing. I savored this book slowly. I enjoyed every single chill that went down my spine when I read a particularly unsettling sentence about mad gods. I loved that my skin crawled. I was captivated by the political mystery. This is a superb fantasy that I would highly recommend to any fantasy fan, and I am so excited for the sequel!