Monday, January 25, 2016

Ten of the Best – Top Reads for 2015

I’m a bit late with my “best of” reading list for 2015, but hey, it’s better late than never. Sadly I don’t get as much time to read as I used to before I went freelance, but then some things can’t be helped. What you’ll get here is a mix of books that are both old and new, because I’m a firm believer that we *do* need talk about older titles. So, here, in alphabetical order, are my top ten reads for the year, accompanied by extracts from my reviews, many of which appeared in the Pretoria News and on my blog.

Allegiance by Beth Bernobich hit all the marks for me with a well-defined, diverse cast. This the third of her River of Souls fantasy trilogy filled with intrigue, magic and adventure. More than that I won't say. Ilse and Raul are most certainly unforgettable, and if you're looking for a richly textured, gradually unfolding saga, then this is the sort of tale that harks back to the classics.

Not only am I drawn to her writing because of her solid worldbuilding, but also because she has created a society where there is less division between the roles played by men and women, and also a fluidity of sexuality. Women are soldiers, they can take on positions of power, and it doesn’t matter who you love. What else I adored was the fact that Bernobich breaks away from the Eurocentricism still prevalent in contemporary fantasy, to gift us with a saga that is distinctly Eastern in flavour without being heavy handed. – an extract from my review.

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen is another story that gave me the shivers. Cat has been one of my guiding lights and her writing is lush, nuanced and immersive. In Beastkeeper she retells "Beauty and the Beast", but from the point of Sarah, a lonely child whose parents have separated. She is sent to live with her remote grandmother, and discovers that her family harbours many secrets.

As always, Hellisen seems to effortlessly touch on the universality of fairy tales to delve even deeper and bring up underlying themes. One one level, this is a children’s quest to break a curse. On another, it’s a parable of how twisted love has soured to hate and indifference, and how one young person can find it in herself to step outside the trap of a destructive cycle. This is a dark, painful and elegant tale, made all the more beautiful, because Hellisen weaves with mystery and doesn’t hand over all the answers on a plate.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is book one of his Raven's Shadow trilogy, and has been one of my new discoveries in fantasy, and I've been gushing like a complete fangrrrl to anyone who's been within earshot. Anthony is an example of where self-publishing can lead to greater things, and this is coming-of-age story turns into a military fantasy that rubs shoulders with a fair amount of adventure and derring-do.

Ryan is relentless in what he has his characters endure, and the results are hardly convenient or tidy (as one can expect in an authentic setting). Expect bloodshed, violence and much death. Vaelin is a complex character whose actions aren’t always kind, but he is consistent in his logic, and I couldn’t help but admire him, even if I did not always agree with his decisions.

Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 1 by David Gaider, Ben Gelinas, Mike Laidlaw and Dave Marshall (editor) was oh so worth the effort of giving my money to BioWare (as I seem to be wont to do of late). I'm a huge fan of the game, not only because it's what I term as a fantasy RPG for Generation X, but because hells, the lore. So. Much. Lore. I'm a lore junkie. Also, this is just a really, really pretty book. And I'm unashamedly a fangrrrl.

I've yet to write a full review, but if you're a collector of stuff to fulfil your inner geekness, this lovely hardcover book is what you need. The illustrations are beautiful and many of those little snippets of tomes and manuscripts that you encounter in-game are replicated here, along with other fascinating bits about the different nations, their people and its history.

Radiance by Grace Draven was one of those rare situations where Amazon made a recommendation that actually hit the mark – she's pegged as being somewhere along the lines of Jacqueline Carey and Storm Constantine (which is the equivalent of catnip for me). This is dark fantasy with a romantic spin, where we have a day/night type relationship. Two young people, Brishen (of the Kai people) and Ildiko (human) have an arranged marriage to solidify the political relations between their people. They weren't supposed to fall in love too... But they did. I eagerly await book two of the Wraith Kings.

This book is sweet, but it’s not without its claws. The non-human race portrayed in this book (the Kai) are not cuddly, and their actions are quite bloody at times. They also make a lovely shift from vampires, elves or angels (I’d peg them as somewhat toothy, predatorial elves that don’t like going out during the day.) The human Ildiko may be soft and gentle on the outside but she has nerves of steel, and adapts quickly to her new people. By the end of the book, she’s a force to be reckoned with – while retaining her feminine qualities.

Sirkus Boere by Sonja Loots is one of two Afrikaans books I read during 2015. Yes, I know I'm terrible that I hardly if ever read anything written in my mother tongue but then again, there's a dearth of fantasy fiction in Afrikaans. Sirkus Boere was set reading for my varsity module, but I enjoyed it anyway because Sonja's writing is oh so clever and the topic (the Anglo-Boer War) fascinates me.

There are plenty of subtexts here. Mainly we deal with four main characters who're each trying to deal with the trauma of what they've lost during the war. Three of them get dragged off to be performers in a spectacle arranged by a circus showman. There's plenty of discussion about racism, colonialism, and how one overcomes the past. Do you embrace it? Walk away from it? Allow it to eat you up and paralyse you? What stories do you tell about your past?

The Children of Húrin by JRR Tolkien is one of those must-reads that has been languishing on my TBR pile for too long – until 2015, that is. In his usual fine, style, Tolkien takes the template for an ancient European myth and recasts it within Middle-earth. I am completely unashamedly a huge Tolkien fan. I am also aware that his writing is not perfect. But he's been part of my journey as reader and author since I was first able to read. Allow me this indulgence.

PS, if you’re emotionally correct and easily upset by bad stuff that happens to good people, go read about unicorns pooping rainbows. This book will make you very, very angry and you’ll probably ask for it to be banned from your library.

The Diving by Helen Walne is another of those books that doesn't full within my usual purview, but because it's my policy to read outside of my chosen genres from time to time, and because this one really hit me in all the feels, it deserves its spot here. I've been somewhat of a huge Helen Walne fan for years, and really enjoy her weekly columns in the Cape Argus. I also had fangrrrl moments whenever I bumped into her in the corridors of Independent Newspapers while I was still employed there. I mean, really – I had to stop myself from tripping over my tongue and telling her in a rush of words how fabulous I think she is.

Helen’s observations are poignant and heartfelt – and she evokes her environment and the people who populate it with great vividness. In places, her signature humour is evident, tempered by her sorrow but redolent with incredible depth of feeling. This is not an easy book to read, because you know from the start what you’re in for, but as a personal account of those struggling in the aftermath of a suicide, it is rich in love despite the pain. And yes, the all-important letting go.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is a standalone fantasy (which is good news for those of you who're positively exhausted by all the trilogies and series out there). When a friend whose opinion I respect and whose good taste in literature I trust implicitly told me in no uncertain terms that I would enjoy this book, I went and bought it. I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's a slow-moving courtly intrigue kinda tale, but I loved Maia's wide-eyed horror as he learns how to become an emperor immensely. Oh, yes, and elves and goblins. That is all.

This is not a fast-moving novel by any measure. Katherine Addison’s prose is detailed and textured, and at times the array of names for people and places is bewildering (and possibly intentionally so, to create a sense of disorientation that Maia might feel at his situation). Yet the story is compelling, down to the last chapter, to be savoured for the rich world building and the slow weave of power play. The Goblin Emperor’s awarding of the 2015 Locus Award for “Best Fantasy Novel” is well deserved.

Whispers of the World that Was by ES Wynn is a Wraeththu Mythos novel. Fans of dark fantasy and who've had their brush with Storm Constantine's worlds will not be disappointed. ES Wynn is a gifted author whose style reminds me a lot of Steve-and-Ghost era Poppy Z Brite. Oh, and don't read this book while you're hungry either.

While those who’ve read the Chronicles and Histories will certainly get some of the more obscure canon references in Whispers of the World that Was, this knowledge is not a prerequisite, primarily because Tyse himself is largely ignorant of what it entails to be Wraeththu. All in all, this is a satisfying read, and a worthy addition to an established fantasy mythos that deviates from standard visions involving dragons, mages and elves.

While I welcome queries from authors and publishers seeking reviews (and I take pride in the fact that I will accept requests from self-published authors and small presses) my reading time at present is severely curtailed due to me having gone full time as a freelance designer and editor. I currently have a huge backlog and will therefore be incredibly picky about which books I accept. Please *do* read my review policy. Potential editing clients are also welcome to email me at – I am happy to provide a five-page sample, and offer a range of services, including proofing, manuscript assessment and developmental edits.

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