- Nikky Lee
2018 in books: reflections on what I read
2018 was the year I promised myself I'd finish the draft of my novel. With most of my free time going towards that, reading soon became a "you should be writing" guilty and not so common pleasure. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised that when 2019 came around, I'd managed to get through 27 books!
Here they are, in roughly chronological order.
1-3. Well of Echoes, Ian Irvine
1. Tetrarch, Ian Irvine (Well of Echoes #2)
2. Alchemist, Ian Irvine (Well of Echoes #3)
3. Chimaera, Ian Irvine (Well of Echoes #4)
My first introduction to Ian Irvine was Geomancer, Well of Echoes Book 1, when I loaned it from my local library years ago. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any of the other books in the series—nor did my local bookshops (this was before eReaders and Amazon really took off). So you can imagine my excitement when I found I found the entire series at my (new) library at the end of 2017.
The writing is okay, but the story—wow. The complexity of it is mind boggling. I have no idea how Irvine comes up with all the twists and turns. Some great character arcs through the series, though I still wish there had been more focus on Tian in the later books.
The novels do have a tendency to drag in the middle as all the different plots unfold, but boy is it worth it when the stories reach their climax. Each time, Irvine manages to pull all the plot threads together and end on a new cliffhanger so I’m compelled to read the next in the series (sneaky!).
4. The Song Rising, Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season #3)
I had to wait a while to get my hands on this latest instalment of Shannon’s The Bone Season series—it’s a popular loan at the library. While not as strong as the first two books, it is a solid story that will entice me to read the next one in the series.
5. Dancer’s Lament, Ian C. Esslemont (Path to Ascendancy #1)
There’s a lot to like about this book. Assassins, warriors, sorceresses, mages, plenty of sword fights and magical battles—it’s all in here. Set in the same universe as Malazan (I didn’t know this until after I finished), there was a huge cast of characters to manage. However, while there were some distinct characters that I loved, others seemed to suffer from a lack of development. The magical system is fascinating, though I would have liked to know more about it.
A major gripe: the prologue stood out like a sore thumb. For the first two-thirds of the book I wondered why it was included at all. By the end, I felt I’d missed the greater picture (having not read any Malazan).
If you’re familiar with the Malazan universe, you’ll probably enjoy it, but for everyone else, come back to this after you’ve read the others (my opinion will likely change once I do).
6. Dolly, Susan Hill
A short creepy novella about a haunted doll. I had skin prickles a few times—just as well I listened to it on audiobook in the car and not at home late at night. I finished it a few short hours. An ideal read for a short road trip.
7-8. Dreamhunter Duet, Elizabeth Knox
7. Dreamhunter, Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter Duet #1)
8. Dreamquake, Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter Duet #2)
The concept of this is what kept me reading. It is refreshingly original. It was also nice to read something with an Australian setting. The mention of eucalyptus and the beaches were a welcome change after reading epic fantasies set in European-inspired landscapes.
9-10. Themis Files, Sylvain Nuevel
9. Walking Gods, Sylvain Nuevel (Themis Files #2)
10. Only Human, Sylvain Nuevel (Themis Files #3)
Giant Robots? Check. Aliens? Check. Super-powered children (well, child)? Check. This series had all the markings of a fun and fast paced sci-fi. And I devoured the last two of the trilogy on audiobook. I had them on in the car, at work, in the gym, everywhere, and finished each one within 48 hours. Nothing drags here, it is go, go, go the whole way.
11. The Monstrous Child, Francesca Simon
Unlike Dancer’s Lament, this story stood up on its own despite being part of a series. In fact, I had no idea it belonged to a larger universe until I went to rate it on Goodreads. As a lover of all things mythology, I particularly enjoyed how Simon’s adapted Norse mythology into the story. I listened to this on audiobook and the narration was excellent.
12 - 14. Red Rising, Pierce Brown
12. Red Rising, Pierce Brown (Red Rising #1)
13. Golden Son, Pierce Brown (Red Rising #2)
14. Morning Star, Pierce Brown (Red Rising #3)
If you pick up any series this year, pick up this one. While it’s a sci-fi, it borrows a lot from fantasy, so it will appeal to readers of both genres. The only thing that stopped me giving the first book a full five stars from me on Goodreads was the opening three chapters. The protagonist's insufferable teenage arrogance was agonising—but that soon changes. Stick it out and you’re in for a bloody damn awesome ride.
15 - 16. The Drenai Saga, David Gemmell
15. Legend, David Gemmell (The Drenai Saga #1)
16. The King Beyond the Gate, David Gemmell (The Drenai Saga #2)
When I hear “classic” I tend to approach with caution. While CS Lewis’s still has a special place in my heart, the likes of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and Lord of the Rings* do not. So, on the recommendation of others, I gingerly picked up Legend and prepared myself for a slog.
I was blown away. Because holy flipping cheeseburgers, this series is fantastic. Full of pace and fully fleshed characters, I couldn’t put them down. It’s been 35 years since Legend was published, but these stories still hold their own with the best of today’s fantasy writers. They ooze heart. The only reason I haven’t gone on to read more was that I knew I could spend the rest of the year only reading Gemmell’s work.
* Blasphemous I know, but I could never get into it.
17. The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time Book #1)
Another classic, this time from the 90s, Wheel of Time is still setting the bar for fantasies today. However, for all the hype surrounding it, I found this first instalment a bit underwhelming. Sure, it has many enjoyable in parts, and excellent world building too, but the plot meanders a lot. It felt like Jordan found himself 250,000 words in and needing to wrap it all up, which causes the conclusion to feel rushed.
18. Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan (Takeshi Kovacs #1)
It’s a dark detective story full of grit and mood. It’s the science fiction version of grimdark fantasy. Set in the 24th century, the story follows ex-criminal Takeshi Kovacs as he tries to solve the murder of his billionaire boss. In this future, people’s minds are stored on ‘stacks’ implanted at the base of their skulls and while their bodies (aka sleeves) are worn and discarded like clothing. R18+ for sex scenes and violence.
19. Dogs of War, Adrian Tchaikovsky
A fresh science fiction that explores a future where war is waged with bioforms (human-animal hybrids bred for war and espionage) rather than robots. The way Tchaikovsky portrays his non-human characters is both excellent and convincing. It draws you right in and doesn't let you put it down.
20. Tomorrow When the War Began, John Marsden
I never got into the series as a teenager, but when I heard Marsden would be at the NZ Writers Forum, I thought I should really catch up on my reading and see why so many of my friend and family adore this series. Here’s the premise: a group of teens return from a camping trip to find their country invaded—with their hometown as the incursion point.
On the whole, I enjoyed this story, and I can see why so many people rave about it. I can also see why it never caught my attention as a teen—back then I liked my adventure full of magic, sword fights with NO romance (snore, as my teenage self would say). Now older and with more reading behind me, I can appreciate this story and its appeal to YA audiences.
21. The Cloak of Challiver, Satima Flavell (Talismans Book #2)
After reading a lot of dark-ish books before this (I'm looking at you Altered Carbon and Red Rising), it was nice to change things up with a high fantasy read. The world itself was refreshingly bright from months of being down in the dark and muck of grimdark. While there are some serious themes in this book, the narrative does not fixate on them. The plot lopes along too and never gets bogged down in detail as fantasy is want to do, which makes it an easy read.
With a cast of mostly female characters, The Cloak of Challiver touches on several feminine issues that I’ve rarely (read: never) seen tackled in any other fantasy. Again, a nice change.
22. Nevernight, Jay Kristoff (The Nevernight Chronicle, #1)
On reading this it is clear why Nevernight won the 2016 Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel. Gorgeous world building. Wonderfully flawed characters. And no happily ever after. Think Hogwarts for assassins. But a warning, gentlefriends, this is no children’s tale. There’s plenty of blood and foul language. MA15+.
23. Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
I’ve not read a lot of Terry Pratchett. His list of novels is enormous, and I’ve never known where to start (though recently I found a chart that has helped!).
Hogfather is an enjoyable tale, perfect for the silly season, but where many of my other reads this year left me in awe, Hogfather left me… content. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. But it didn’t wow me much either. To its credit, the origin story of the Hogfather was excellent. The book was good enough that I’ll probably pick up another Pratchett book in future. My hope is the next will be the one I fall in love with.
24. The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (The First Law, #1)
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Abercrombie's writing. The Blade Itself is the first of his work I’ve read and yes, the writing and characters are excellent. The introduction of Glokta is, hands down, the best character introduction I’ve ever read. There is a large cast to keep track of, yet every character feels unique. And while some are more fleshed out than others, they are all well developed. My only criticism is the plot meanders somewhat in the middle. However, it does come together in the final climax and has a great reveal at the end.
25. Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
The Children of Blood and Bone is a West African-inspired fantasy debut from Tomi Adeyemi. What initially drew me to this story was the number of agents who featured it on their wish lists. My reasoning: if literary agents like it, then it must be good! I wasn’t disappointed.
The setting is rivetingly fresh and, despite its intended YA audience, the story tackles some dark themes and subject matter that I didn’t expect (but thoroughly enjoyed!). That said, I’m not a huge romance lover and I found my interest waning during one of the romance arcs. However, if you like a strong serving of romance in your fantasy, read this book. You will not regret it.
26. Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
A science fiction novella set in the distant future where humanity has spread across the galaxy and encountered other lifeforms—some friendly, some not. Binti, a young Himba woman from Earth, goes against tradition (and her family’s wishes) and leaves her hometown to travel to the intergalactic, and highly prestigious, Oomza University.
Binti is a short, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in originality and character. The character and culture of Binti, and her determination not to lose her sense of self are brilliantly done. Highly recommend, and best of all, there are another two parts to this award-winning series.
27. Beginnings: An Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology
Beginnings is the first anthology of Deadset Press—brainchild of the Aussie Speculative Fiction Group. The anthology boasts a great range of short speculative reads on the theme beginning. I devoured this book in thirty-six hours, a record time for me (I’m a notoriously slow reader). Many of the stories were from new and emerging authors, and I’m looking forward to reading more from them in the future.
Heading into 2019
One thing that has struck me while writing up this 2018 list is that, despite my best intentions, only eight of my 27 reads this year were written by women—not even close to parity! This is one of my goals for 2019, to read more women and stories outside my go-to speculative fiction tastes.
What I’m planning to read this year
I’ve set a Goodreads reading goal of 30 books this year—just over a book every fortnight. Here’s my To Be Read (TBR) pile so far:
All Systems Red, Martha Wells
If I Wake, Nikki Moyes
The Court of Broken Knives, Anna Smith Spark
Godsgrave, Jay Kristoff (The Nevernight Chronicle, #2)
Putting the Science in Science Fiction, edited by Dan Koboldt
Godblind, Anna Stevens
Every River Runs to Salt, by Rachael K. Jones
Beneath the Mother Tree, D.M. Cameron
Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (The First Law, #2)
The Canticle of Two Souls, Steven Raaymakers
Kalanon’s Rising, Darian Smith
Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Circe, Madeline Miller
As you can see, I’m halfway short. Any recommendations?