I initially had 8 books on this list, but whittled it down to six; six months, six-pack of beer, six books. I realize this list skews heavily towards fantasy, but that's what I've been reading more of this year so far. The books represented below are those published in 2013 I enjoyed the most. The list goes alphabetically by author.
Quite simply, I think Abraham is the best practitioner of Epic Fantasy today, and this is my favorite book of the year so far. From my Tor.com review:
I’ve previously remarked on how empowering Abraham’s female characters are—they operate as active characters who take control of their lives rather than react to the men around them. Clara’s story arc was perhaps the strongest, whether this was because she was new or because it was the most complex. The fact that she is a widow is a great indicator that she has a fresh start, Clara takes that proverbial ball and runs with it, awakening many aspects of herself she thought she knew—her mind, her drive for justice, her sexuality. She walks a thin line which divides the surface appearance of her actions and the true intent of her actions. As the series progresses, I suspect this line will only become thinner as her maneuverings have a greater effect on the world at large.
I’ve long been a fan of Epic Fantasy and when it is handled properly, expertly, there’s no form of entertainment I’d rather be enjoying. Such is the case with the books in The Dagger and the Coin. Everything he’s done in the previous novels so well, Abraham continues to do well here in The Tyrant’s Law.
Bennett has only published four books and I've only read two of them over the last two years (this and The Troupe), and overall, they may be the two best novels I've read over the last two years.
Bennett raises a lot of questions in the novel and the answers the characters provide are discovered through a narrative that is, for the most part, taut and flavored with unsettling and creepy scenes. Two primary mysteries plague Mona (and the reader) throughout the narrative – who was Laura and what was the nature of Coburn’s research? Mona’s discovery of those two things and how they relate to each other is filled with dread and some otherworldly elements that would fit right at home in an H.P. Lovecraft story, a Stephen King novel, or something in one of Neil Gaiman’s various invented worlds.
The Troupe, Robert Jackson Bennett’s previous novel, was my favorite novel published last year (2012) and a novel that is becoming an all-time favorite as I consider its impact on me against the other books I’ve read over the course of my life. That’s sort of a long way of stating that American Elsewhere was saddled with very high expectations. Parts of American Elsewhere were stronger (the subtle, hinted at dread and disquieting feeling Bennett evoked) while other parts I felt the novel wandered a bit from where it was strongest specifically a few of the random chapters focusing on residents of Wink seemingly unconnected from Mona’s central voyage of discovery. Though those chapters/passages give a larger scale picture of the oddity that is the town of Wink and its inhabitants, for me, they were more of a distraction from the more powerful aspects of the novel.
Myke Cole is emerging as one of my favorite new writers in the genre and his Shadow OPS series, which started with a bang in Control Point, gets even better in this second installment.
Another thing Cole does in Fortress Frontier is to expand the borders beyond just the US military. When Bookbinder is introduced, it isn’t long after that readers are introduced to a contingent from the Indian military and his liaison to the Source, a Naga, a many-headed snake/serpent. Specifically, a Prince to the throne of the Naga people whom Bookbinder basically begs for assistance in getting back to Earth. There’s a certain resonance to Bookbinder’s situation to the situation in which Tony Stark finds himself in the first Iron Man film when he is tasked with building missiles for who he thought was an enemy. As the final third of the novel progress, the strength of these scenes is in their plausibility and the manner in which Bookbinder handles the stresses and problems thrown before him.
Whereas the majority of Control Point was told from Oscar’s point-of-view, only about 2/3 to ½ of Fortress Frontier is told from Bookbinder’s point-of-view. As I intimated, Oscar is not forgotten and some of the other POV scenes are through him, as well as a character familiar to both Oscar and readers who enjoyed Control Point. So, in short, Cole has admirably widened the geopolitical scope of his world in addition to increasing the character lenses through which we as the readers can view this world – a natural and impressive progression. The strength here is that character and world-building are equal parts of the whole and one’s development does not suffer from the growth of the other.
This book took me by surprise with just how much I loved it, so much so that I recently conducted an e-mail interview with the author James K. Decker. Here's a bit from my review:
Although The Burn Zone is the first novel to be published under the James K. Decker byline, the author published the Revivors trilogy under the name James Knapp, a zombie-noir series which began with the novel State of Decay. I read and enjoyed that novel and see some of the same sensibilities here in The Burn Zone. A non-stop narrative pace kept the plot moving, the pages turning, and this reader guessing which fork in the road the story would take. The noir-ish and gritty feel of The Burn Zone evokes a similar used, grimy, and dirty future as did State of Decay; there’s a clear inspiration from Blade Runner in Decker’s writing.
The novel takes place in the fictional city of Hangfei, which Decker set in a future analogue of China, based on some of the locations and character names. Smartly, he doesn’t specify the nation is China. As the novel progresses and Sam learns more about the haan and their relationship to our world since their ship crashed nearly fifty years ago, the full scope of the aliens effect on Earth becomes much more far ranging than either Sam or this reader could have expected.
So far, this is the best debut of the year for me, it worked on every level imaginable for my Epic Fantasy tastes. A bit from my review:
Much of the novel follows the growth of Vaelin from a blank slate of a young child to a hardened warrior trained by the Order in the art of war and combat. Vaelin distinguishes himself early, gaining the respect of his peers and making close ties with a handful of boys, much like (I assume) soldiers would bond during their military training. Vaelin comes to think of these peers as his brothers, Barkus, Caenis, Dentos, and Nortah. The bonds of trust and respect that develop between these young men are strengths of Ryan’s narrative on full display throughout the novel. One writer I’ve always felt who handles such bonds of friendship between youthful characters is Stephen King (The Body, Hearts in Atlantis, for example) and here, Ryan captures that bond just as powerfully.
While playing with prophecy/destiny is a major theme of Blood Song, two other, intertwined themes that came across to me were morality and regret. Often, acting as the tool of the Order, Vaelin is tasked with committing acts of violence and destruction that go against what the perceived moral imperatives of the Faith would seem to be. As Vaelin matures and grows into an intelligent man, he questions the things he’s asked to do and often finds himself on a slippery slope through the gyre of doing what he’s told and doing what is right. In parallel to that morality, is an undercurrent of regret and sorrow, it seems. Though Vaelin claims to hate his father for leaving him at the gates of the Sixth Order that feeling doesn’t quite feel honest. There’s sorrow and pain which fuel the superficial hate Vaelin expresses.
I'd been following Chuck on twitter for quite a while now and had been wanting to dig into some of his novels, what blast this one was:
It’s a familiar tale, superficially. Daddy ignores daughter and wife for work, daughter rebels. Wendig provides points-of-view from Mookie and Nora, as well as Mookie’s friend Werth, Nora’s friend Skelly, and the primary antagonist of the novel Candlefly, one of the Boss’s new associates. The title of the novel is derived from the Cerulean powder characters rub on their temples opening their vision to the world of the paranormal and conferring enhanced strength/metabolism. The Blue Blazes is just one of the Occulted Pigments of power in the novel, Mookie comes across the Golden Gate (Ochre) and the Red Rage (Vermillion), but what he needs most is simply the Violet Void, also known as the Dead Head. The Violet is only a myth in this world, mainly because of its miraculous restorative powers, which Mookie hopes will heal the Boss. So, intertwined with this emotional family drama is a quest and descent to the underworld, rather The Underworld.
The Blue Blazes is novel/story with a rough, hewn-leather exterior of action and violence with a powerful, emotional core. Emotions that intertwine like love and hate, and emotions that fuel and underlie the motives and actions like regret, sorrow, and fear, and ultimately inform a man with powerful exterior who uses that exterior to often hide his fears and regrets. I found myself not wanting to move on with whatever my daily life required while I was reading The Blue Blazes, work, family activities, etc. The great power of this novel is that I feel like I have to read more of Chuck Wendig’s fiction.