2019 Year in Review

Pull up a chair and warm yourself by the hearth, good traveler! The day is late, and we’ve all journeyed from afar to get here. Our voyages over the past year has carved many a winding path through the vast fields of genre fiction; some roads have been recognizable, and others were unfamiliar and untrodden. This is why I’m going to do things a bit differently this year. Instead of a single list of Top 2019 Reads, I’m splitting it up into two categories:

– Favorite Traditional Published Books of 2019; and
This Year’s Hidden Gems

Let me first clarify that I don’t think that traditionally published books should be categorized or judged on a different scale than self- or independently-published books. I have read over eighty books this year, and I think we’re in a golden age of fantasy writing worldwide. Creativity, exploration, inclusion, and brilliant storytelling are consistently setting new precedents, regardless of the author’s background or marketing support. The goal here is to applaud the flat-out incredible range of popular SFF books I’ve read in 2019, while also calling attention to some of the more underground, underrated, or less talked-about gems that I think deserve a bigger audience.

Favorite Traditional Published Books of 2019

The following list contains wide-release books I read in 2019. Not all have been published in 2019; some will be released in 2020. They are unranked, but if I were to rank them, the group at the top of the list would be listed the highest. (At least, today they are. Ask me again tomorrow, and the order might change. And this is why they’re unranked.) Much has been said about many of these books already—I’ve included links to my full reviews of each one—so I’ll keep my additional comments to a minimum. Without further ado…


The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft
The third book in Bancroft’s The Books of Babel tetraology solidifies this series as a generational classic in the making. Hot on the trail of finding his lost love, Thomas and his crew are catapulted further into the mysteries of the Tower as it starts to crumble under the strains of populist strife. Poetic prose, clever humor, heartfelt character connections, and wondrous mysteries abound. Full review


The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood
One of the best debut novels I’ve read, full stop. A genre-defying story of hidden gods, trans-dimensional portals, priestess-turned-assassins, thievery, artifact-hunting, sky ships, ancient myths… there is so much story packed into this one novel, it feels like you’re reading a full series by book’s end. If the gods are just, this book will have a massive reception upon release. It’s a truly remarkable achievement. Full review


A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Perhaps the finest work of one of the world’s greatest living storytellers; Brightness examines the ramifications of decisions made by fringe players of historic events that reshape the world. A historical fantasy based on soldiers and leaders in medieval Italy, the characters are as beautiful and rich as Kay’s prose. Stunning set pieces, with soaring emotional highs and devastating moments of loss. Vintage Kay at the top of his game. Full review


The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix Harrow
A beautifully written and lovingly crafted adventure about the strength of love, the importance of stories, and the timeless power of words. This is a book that will reward repeat readers. Exquisite and unforgettable. Full review


Master of Sorrows, by Justin Call
Another brilliant coming-of-age debut about a half-priest, half-warrior boy who is destined to become The Dark One. The world-building echoes Brandon Sanderson in terms of depth and breadth. A doorbuster of a book that covers a very short period of time; it’s plain to see that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the world that Call has planned for us. Immersive and unputdownable. Full Review


The Girl and the Stars, by Mark Lawrence
A new trilogy set in Abeth, taking place centuries after the Book of the Ancestor series has ended. A brilliant introduction to another genre-defying trilogy set far beneath the ice planet’s surface, with hints suggesting how all Lawrence’s books are tied together. A fascinating and full-realized world that seamlessly blends fantasy and tech with a protagonist you’ll root for from the start. Once again, Lawrence one-ups himself with each release. Full review


The Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo
Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy explores hidden societies beneath the surface of Yale University, told through the eyes of a survivor of a mass murder who can see ghosts. Mysteries, magic, and shocking reveals aplenty, with Bardugo’s wonderful prose and deeply flawed characters helping to make this a haunting, cant-miss read. Haunting and original. Full review


Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence
A devastating yet triumphant end to Nona’s story in the final entry of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. A clever narrative structure keeps the tension high, and the fates of all our favorite nuns and their encroaching enemies are determined. Emotional, surprising, and unmissable. Nona will be missed. Full review


The True Bastards, by Jonathan French
Fetch was my favorite character in The Grey Bastards so I have been waiting years to read this sequel after learning she would be the main POV. It did not disappoint. It is a pulse-pounding story of sacrifice and survival, of rising above persectuion, and the strengths of brotherhood no matter your background… and enough violence, profanity, and black comedy to whet even the darkest of appetites. Full review


Darkdawn, by Jay Kristoff
Mia “Murderqueen” Corvere’s story comes to an end in a blood-soaked, tear-fueled rage of death, love, stabbings, more death, all the the vengeful showdowns we had been promised, and enough surprises to make physically unable put the book down over the last hundred pages. (I’ve tried it. Don’t question it, it’s science.) It also provides plenty of Kristoff’s irreverant humor as well as poignant commentary on the power of words over weapons. Full review


Dispel Illustion, by Mark Lawrence
When a trilogy deals with time travel, quantum physics, closing loops, ‘rules of a branching multiverse,’ and, oh yes, cancer, D&D, nostalgia, and a touching love story, one would think that it would be impossible to pull off a fitting finale. One would also learn to never underestimate Mark Lawrence’s skill in covering all his bases while delivering a clever and satisfying finish that hits all the right notes. Full review


The Dragon Republic, by R. F. Kuang
In the follow-up to the shocking and unforgettable The Poppy War, Kuang manages to deliver this sequel with improved focus and a more balanced tone, but still delivering on Rin’s hellish coming-of-age journey through a war-torn world of havoc and survival. Full review


Priest of Lies, by Peter McLean
After reading Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies back-to-back, Tomas Piety overtook the voice in my head. I started to think like him, to talk and respond like him. That is how well-crafted a character he is, and how in control McLean is in delivering such a unique narrative voice through his stories. Piety is an ex-soldier-turned-gang leader who is leading his former platoon mates in a takeover of his old city, but there are plenty of rivals standing in his way. And some people you just don’t mess with. ‘Addictive’ doesn’t begin to describe these books. Full review


Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames
Book two of The Band changes its focus from metaphoric 1970’s classic rock debauchery to a 1980’s-inspired band of mercenaries led by femme fatale Bloody Rose, daughter of Kings of the Wyld‘s Golden Gabe. The story is told from Tam’s POV, the newest member of Rose’s band Fable, as she navigates the highs and lows of tour life. Humor is intercut with heart and heartbreak, with plenty of action and a rousing finale. Full review


The Sin in the Steel, by Ryan Van Loan
Debuting in 2020. Buc is a teenage genius. Part Alexander Hamilton, part Sherlock Holmes, she and her traumatized soldier companion are commissioned by a massive corporation to discover why their trading ships are disappearing at sea. Ancient gods? Pirates? Politics and mad mages? It’s a foul-mouthed, swashbuckling, double-crossing adventure not to be missed. Full review


Starsight, by Brandon Sanderson
How does he keep doing it? Sanderson’s first foray into outer space science-fiction was a knockout in Skyward. Exceptional world-building, an original ‘magic’ (cytonic) system, plenty of mystery, and likeable protagonists — all Sanderson staples. In this sequel, Spin is forced out of her comfort zone to confront who she really is, and find out her place in the universe. As new alien races and threats are introduced, Sanderson has the chance to use the farthest reaches of the universe as his sandbox, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity to create fascinating societies, life forms, and forces of destruction to contend with. The creativity is turned up to eleven. Full review


This Year’s Hidden Gems

Fantasy fiction has an incredible online fan community. Countless blogs, Facebook groups, Discords, reddit pages, and Twitter conversations are daily evidence that there is a positive and supportive system between authors, fans, and publishers. Word of mouth might be the single most powerful tool we have to promote the new and exciting stories that are being loosed into the aether. While some titles that have little difficulty picking up new audiences, others could greatly benefit from online buzz to help gain traction. I like to call these books ‘hidden gems;’ some books you might know quite well, and perhaps have already read more than a few, but I encourage you to pick up a couple of new ones to read in 2020.

Not all of the following books were published this year, but since I read them in 2019, they are eligible for this list. Many of these stories appealed to me for many different reasons, so I’ll try and be as specific and concise as possible in sharing why I think these are also some of the best reads of the year.

 


The Millennial Manifesto, by Michael R. Fletcher
A powerful tale on what some resourceful, fearless, and determined young people can do when they’re fed up with the atrocities of the world that’s being turned over to them. A generational call-to-arms. Full review


River of Thieves, by Clayton Snyder
Sharply written and utterly hilarious, this story of some take-no-prisoners vigilantes feels like a middle-finger response to the shameful and depressing state of government and the cartoonishly idiotic dipthongs that pretend to run things. The fantastic dialogue shines. Full review


Legacy of Ghosts, by Alicia Wanstall-Burke
Wanstall-Burke’s Blood of Heirs is a SPFBO5 finalist for good reason, but Legacy of Ghosts is where the story really launches it into uncharted territory. Strong character development, exciting set pieces, and intense showdowns aplenty. The wait for book three is going to be a long one. Full review


The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in the Water, by Zen Cho
What starts out as a book about banditry and border wars becomes a meditation on identity, and how its ramifications affect different races, customs, and lands. A novella that runs the full gamut of emotions, with an excellent payoff and solid foundational world-building for Cho’s other works. Full review


Wrath of Storms, by Steve McKinnon
What Symphony of the Wind brings to the table, Wrath of Storms dials it up across the board. This series feels like a fantasy Die Hard mashup, but now we’re going to add Tomb Raider and 007 films into the mix. In other words, you can count on more incredible action sequences, a breathless pace, characters you love to hate and hate to love, and pure, adrenaline-fueled fun. The lore runs rich and the emotional stakes grow deeper, and McKinnon can’t write these fast enough. Full review


The Girl with No Face, by M. H. Boroson
Fantasy, horror, action, spirituality, religion, deep character growth, and sheer wonder, set in Chinatown pre-20th century San Francisco. Spirit healers, evil yokai, dazzling swordfights, and something called a ‘love spell’ that will give you nightmares. This is an incredibly underrated series with a vividly-realized narrative voice. Li-Lin is someone you’ll root for and want to spend time with again and again. Full review


Never Die, by Rob J. Hayes
An adrenaline-fueled, anime-inspired story of vengeance, exploring what it means to be a warrior, and what tolls it might take on the human psyche.  A deceased boy gathers a troupe of  infamous, X-Men -style warriors to take down the man who killed him. But they’ll have to contend with yokai, Japanese spirit monsters of legend, if they want to survive. Non-stop action, a great mix of ‘let’s get a team together!’ scenes, strong characterizations for such a short one-off novel, and plenty of surprises by the end. Full review


Borderlands: Prelude, by Charles Gull
Gull introduces two vast kingdoms at war in his Borderlands series of novellas, with each subsequent book centering on a different protagonist while continuing the same story line.  This intense military fantasy offers plenty of unique monsters, environmental dangers that call to mind McDonald’s ‘The Misery,’ and a long string of action scenes and world-building developments that establishes what’s to come in the many planned books ahead. Full review


Bloodwitch, by Timandra Whitecastle
A prequel to the Living Blade trilogy, Bloodwitch introduces some of the major players and their origins, and how what we already know of them might be misconstrued. Whitecastle utilizes her articulate prose to weave wondrous scenes of water-magic and high-stakes adventure. Full review


Zed, by Joanna Kavenna
George Orwell meets Black Mirror. A satirical, hilarious, and downright frightening near-future science fiction story about an omnipresent tech company who grows so powerful that they influence law, economy, and just about everything else on the planet. Their “Beetle” network is like Alexa or Siri on steriods. Many potshots are fired, and nearly all of them land. Full review


Sin Eater, by Mike Shel
The second entry in Shel’s ‘Iconoclasts’ trilogy solidifes him as one of the brightnest new talents in fantasy novel writing. Shel has many years’ experience writing for RPGs, and he utilizes these tools to develop a harrowing tale of elder gods, ancient races, dungeon crawls, magic weapons, and an absolute killer of an ending. But the book truly excels when the relationship between Auric and his daughter Agnes is put under the spotlight. Rich and rewarding, with deeply flawed characters and an escalating intensity, the third book is one of my most anticipated of 2020. Full review


Legends of the Exiles, by Jesse Teller
Teller continues to flesh out his ambitious, gargantuan world of Perilisc with bi-annual releases that span continents and generations, further cementing Teller as one of the most imaginative and driven writers out there. Legends is comprised of four powerful novellas, with four different women as each story’s lead, overcoming great burdens in a generally male-centric society. (Although Daughter of Beasts may beg to differ.) This is also a deeply personal story for Teller to write, and he has since bravely shared some of his own past experiences that mirror some of the horrifying and tragic events in the book. While not all aspects of these stories clicked for me, I’m still thinking about them many months later. Full review


The Glass Dagger, by M. D. Presley
This criminally underread series continues to astound with its complex themes, time-shifting dual narratives, an inherent magic system based on breath, politics, manhunts, sorcery, steampunk and flintlock fantasy elements, and a fully-realized world loosely based on Civil War-era America. Book three of the series sets up what should be an incredible finale, due out this year. Thought-provoking and wildy original, tackling themes of identity, familial loyalty, responsibility, patriotism, deism, and so much more. Read this series and share it with your friends. Full review


Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike
Pike’s first entry in The Dark Profit saga, Orconomics, won first place out of 300 entries in a self-published fantasy contest for good reason. It’s refreshingly original, absolutely hilarious, poignant, and reflective of our current state of late-stage capitlaism. Son of a Liche somehow ups the ante in almost every aspect, delivering an endlessly quotable deluge of smart, incisive commentary, trope subversion, and masterful, rhythmic prose that flows like a long verse of Bill Hicks’ dark poetry. It also manages to pull heavily on the heartstrings, delivering a sneaky and surprising amount of well-developed character depth. This book impresses on so many levels. A must-read. Full review


Kings of Ash, by Richard Nell
Nell’s Kings of Paradise blew me away, instantly becoming one of my favorite debuts, and books, of all time. Kings of Ash sneers at Kings of Paradise on its way to dethroning the former champion. Ruka is the most interesting character in all the fantasy I’ve consumed over the years, and this trilogy is a character study of what this broken and hated boy is capable of when he grows up to a be feared, charismatic barbarian with multiple personas, an eidetic memory, his own skewed sense of morality, and a thirst for conquest and vengeance. As if that wasn’t enough, Ruka discovers some hidden traits about his mind grove that is jaw-dropping in its awesomeness and its consequences. Nell is a truly amazing talent, and it is only a matter of time before this trilogy is picked up by a wide-releasing publisher. Full review


The Shadow King, by Alec Hutson
The Raveling trilogy is a throwback, classical epic fantasy story that is smartly plotted and tightly written, with a deep well of rich lore and detailed world-building that draws on both eastern and western cultures. It is also an extremely polished work, and would fit perfectly in the bookshelves of any fantasy enthusiast. The Shadow King concludes what is a truly thrilling adventure that will have you both pumping your fist and grimacing with anticipation. Although the trilogy may be over, I hope we’ll see a lot more of this world. Either way, anything Hutson writes is a first-day purchase. Full review


To Flee a King, by Steve Rodgers
Releasing in 2020. I was privy to an early draft of Rodgers’ third book of his Spellgiver series, and it was by far my favorite of the three. And this is after choosing City of Shards as a semi-finalist in SPFBO4. To Flee a King is another masterclass in world-building, showcasing one of Rodgers’ greatest aspects as a writer. While we once again shift between a few POVs, the Lidathi general Kemharak’s story is at the forefront as he tries to lead his people out of the frozen north and find a place of safety to settle amongst a world that has been taught to hate his race. Rodgers impresses in not only conjuring an abundance of original ideas on how his world functions, but also at how deeply he considers how each of his creative decisions interact and evolve within the societies and environments he has built around them. This is one of the many reasons why the Spellgiver series separates itself from other epic fantasies of its kind. 


Flight of the Darkstar Dragon, by Benedict Patrick
A clever twist on portal fantasy, Patrick launches the first of a new series outside of his Yarnsworld universe. An airship is pulled through a doorway into a closed dimension of countless portals of shifting doors that open and close, leading to indescribable new worlds. Min attempts to lead her trapped airship crew back home, but must contend with a power-hungry wizard, environmental hazards, and, oh yes, a planet-sized dragon. Gaining the respect of her crewmates would be a good start. Full review


Faycalibur, by Liam Perrin
Perrin once again goes against the grain in delivering a Python-esque, Pratchett-inspired take on the Knights of the Round, told from the perspective of Sir Thomas the Hesitant of the Less Valued Knights. (If certain texts were to be believed, then yes, the Less Valued Knights actually existed.) This series continues its warm-hearted adventures filled with wit and optimism, which sound like a perfect escapist antidote to the dreary state of current world events. This story shows signs that Perrin has a long game in mind for Thomas and his crew. A delightful read. Full review


To everyone who’s been following our site for a while, thanks for spending some time reading our reviews this year. We’re really proud of how we’ve expanded our team and increased the frequency of our releases and blog posts in 2019, and we have some exciting things to share in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll still be writing reviews like crazy, but we’ll also be putting more effort into creating more original content. We want to continue to make FantasyBookReview a top source of fantasy book news, releases, interviews, advance reviews, contests, and much more. We welcome all feedback, positive and negative, so please don’t hesitate to comment below.

Happy, healthy, and safe new year to all.

— Adam

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