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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 21: Transformation
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This year we are going to break down fantasy into a number of different categories and pick a winner and list the runners-up. I think is a good way of putting in a list of good reads because when you do a top down list, it doesn’t promote great books that are near the bottom of a list.
Be sure you also check out our Top 25 Best Fantasy Books of 2014 for more of the best recommendations.
Ben: Red Rising by Pierce Brown. If there was one book that absolutely blew my socks off this year, it was Red Rising. This was, bar non, my favorite read out of the year. Red Rising is the perfect blend of Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, and the Lord of the Flies. But superbly written, philosophical, and absolutely jam-packed with action and tension. If you pick up one book this year (even if you don’t like Science Fiction), make it this book! The good news is the sequel Golden Son is out next month and reports from people who have read the ARC have it that it’s even BETTER than Red Rising.
Ben: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. An awesome and incredible novel. This is one of those books that comes out and you know, as you are reading it, it’s something special. The author has been writing fantasy for years now and every book has been awesome; but this is Jackson’s best so far and a novel that deserves to win a Hugo and Nebula. It’s a magnificent blend of different genres and the characters are something special.
Jon Snow: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. Although very slow paced and essentially nothing happens, this one pulled at all of my heart strings. Right in dem feels. I was so apprehensive about reading this book because I just wanted Hobb to leave Fitz alone (cue Leave Britney Alone video). Yet after this book, I just want more. Give me Book 2!
Runners Up: Magicians Land, The Dark Defiles, Words of Radiance, The Mirror Empire, Traitor’s Blades, The Crimson Campaign
Ben: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley. I was mighty impressed with this one. Epic fantasy done right. Large landscapes, different cultures, ancient cultures, and royal siblings who each grow up in different parts of the world. I wasn’t expecting much when I first stared, but it quickly became one of the best fantasy reads this year and is my pick for the best debut fantasy of 2014. The sequel Providence of Fire is due out next month and many reports by early readers are that it’s even better than the first. If you haven’t read this yet, get on it before the sequel comes out.
Jon Snow: I’d have to agree with Ben here. I’ve read a few debut authors that haven’t made as big as a splash as this one. However, when you have the backing of TOR, then many more doors open.
Runners Up: Traitor’s Blade, The Waking Engine, The Boy with the Porcelain Sword
Ben: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. Sometimes you just keep reading the same type of story over and over and then surprisingly, out of the blue, an author writes a story that pushes the current of what’s been done into a completely new direction.
With some fiercely imaginative worldbuilding (you’ll be astounded how the author sets up the world) and a sharp look at what war can do even to the best of humanity, this is a book that speaks to us, not only through the unique settings, or horrific events that occur, but through the human stories sprinkled within this violent world. And did I mention the novel pushes some serious boundaries of the genre? The one book that you will read and after you finish will be blow away with the world built up by the author.
Runners Up: City of Stairs, The Revolutions: A Novel, The Waking Engine, The Goblin Emperor
Ben: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. Doing things a sequel (and a concluding one at that) should do and doing them better than right. This, for me, was the best fantasy read this year. Smart, intelligent, progressive, and self aware while also being a pretty damn exciting read to boot. This is one of the few intelligent fantasy series that’s able to manage being ‘literary’ while also being a very good yarn at the same time. As such, it appeals to mainstream critics who sneer at fantasy as being low quality, unworthy of literary greatness, while at the same time also appealing to the average fantasy reader who doesn’t care about the literary value or subtext of a work. It’s also a book that brings the entire trilogy to a resounding close, redeeming the characters and elucidating the events and the way things happened in the first two books. It’s a book that having read it makes the first two books even better. If you haven’t picked this series up yet, do so. It’s the best of the best.
Special mention here for Veil of the Deserters. Jeff Salyards is the real deal. If you love Abercrombie, Lawrence, Cook, or Luke Skull, you are in for a serious treat with the Bloodsounder’s Arc. His Scourge of the Betrayers, which I only read this year (it came out last year), was one of my favorite fantasy books this year and his sequel, Veil of the Deserters, ups the ante in everyway, proving to be even a better read than the first book. This guy’s boooks are make for one hell of a reading experience. Salyards is some hot stuff and he’s definitely THE new author to keep your eye on.
Runner up: Veil of the Deserters, The Crimson Campaign, The Dark Defiles, Sworn in Steel
Ben: Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan. The book that did everything wrong the first did completely right. It’s an understatement to say that The Tower Lord, the hotly anticipated sequel to The Blood Song, was a huge let down. It’s not a bad novel persay, but Ryan’s shift away from the main character of the last book and change in style and setting was off putting. It definitely lacks the passion and coming of age excitement of the first and you follow the stories of characters you don’t really give a damn about. Tower Lord feels like it was rushed effort. Whatever the case, a huge disappointment.
Jon Snow: The World of Ice and Fire by GRRM. Yeah, I’m being controversial here. It really isn’t a fantasy book (novel) but it is about fantasy. Now don’t get me wrong, if you love Westeros and GRRM’s world, then this is a great book. My problem is, it isn’t The Winds of Winter. That’s why it is so disappointing.
Runners Up:The Skin Game, The Barrow, Blood and Iron, Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen
Ben & Jon Snow: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb has long enchanted us with her character driven tales, all starting and now returning to again with Fitz Chilvary. As many people have said about this book, it’s that book you didn’t know you needed to read. Personally I wanted poor old Fitz to just enjoy his retirement after the last trilogy, but Hobb couldn’t just let him rest and has brought him back in for one more trilogy of adventures. And you know what, with this outstanding return, she’s convinced me — I am happy Fitz is back in business. If you’ve like The Farseer trilogy and read the followup Tawny Man trilogy, then there’s probably no power on Earth (let alone my humble narrative) that will prevent you from picking this book up. Just rest assured if you do, you’ll find yourself right at home with a best friend you haven’t seen in a long time. And you’ll find that things are as they used to be.
Runners Up:The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, The Widow House, Prince of Fools, City of Stairs
Ben: The Boy with a Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick. A remarkably well drawn tale by a debut author. This one is a powerful coming of age tale that does almost all the right things with very little wrong. Lots of detailed swordplay action, an interesting setting (a sort of pseudo alternative Italian renaissance period), and an interesting hero. Particularly well done is the dark, almost macabre setting filled with dangers to the hero at practically every corner. One of the best fantasy debuts of 2014 ; without a doubt, The Boy with a Porcelain Blade proves a new talent has arrived on the scene.
Jon Snow: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. I think that while this is a YA book and the children don’t really age in here. The character Tony really starts to change and open up to his friends. And while this might have been interwoven with Stroud’s plot twist, I think it really helps the reader start understanding and liking Tony.
Ben & Jon Snow: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence. Lawrence (mostly) does it again with his newest take on anti-hero fantasy. The book is clever and funny with an entertainingly sarcastic hero who retains both heroic and cowardly qualities — though mostly cowardly.
The Broken Empire trilogy was perhaps a more difficult yet ultimately rewarding (not to mention boundary pushing) work, but Prince of Fools does far more right than it does wrong, and by the end of the book (the first in a trilogy I might add), Lawrence succeeds in developing a nuanced anti-hero that brings a whole lot of laughs to the table though his misadventures.
All in all, a solid offering by Lawrence and a very different direction (and hero) than in his Broken Empire books. Kudos to Lawrence fro trying something new — he definitely succeeds here. Prince of Fools is definitely the best anti-hero story this year, and I do very much look forward to Prince Jarl’s next tale.
Ben: The Heresy Within by Rob J Hayes wins this one.
It seems every year there is one standout self-published author who rises above the rest and usually ends up (eventually) landing a publishing deal with one of the major publishers. Several years ago Anthony Ryan blew onto the fantasy scene like a tornado with Blood Song, showing that a self-published work could rival even some of the best published fantasy works (with a good deal of professional editing I might add).
Last year, the best self published author was David Dalglish and his Shadowdance series.
The trend of indi fiction making it big is a growing one. There have been some solid success stories over the past couple years. Authors like Michael J Sulivan have worked hard for many years and through sheer effort and determination used the self publishing medium to land publishing deals on their own terms. But the new generation of indie authors have it easier now as indie fiction has become very much accepted by many readers.
This year, without a doubt the best self published award goes to Rob J Hayes for The Heresy Within, a dark and violent fantasy that definitely rings some of the same bells that Abercrombie rings. It is a story filled with plenty of action, grit, and heroes who are complete bastards. Without a doubt, Hayes will be joining the ranks of traditionally published soon. If you want to sink your teeth into the best of the self published fantasy, well, I would definitely start with Hayes — his debut fantasy is an unpolished gem and absolutely worth reading.
Ben: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
Sometimes you just don’t want to stick your head into the muck of humanity when reading a book. Sometimes you want the hero to be good and honorable and noble — to do right because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do and not based on survival or self-preservation, or self-interest. The Goblin Emperor is that book.
Unexpectedly becoming the new emperor of a kingdom that doesn’t want him by a freak accident that kills his father and half siblings, the protagonist always tries to do right in a world that utterly detests him for who he is. Our hero is ugly by the standards of the court, completely uneducated in the ways of the back-biting courtiers who surround him, and has pretty much lived as a recluse.
A great coming of age tale with a truly likable character. The worldbuilding is top notch here, an enchanting and evocative world with its own peoples, customs, history and even special speech patterns.
One of the best reads this year… and in a sea of grimdark, a lighthouse of positivity.
Ben: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie.
No one does it dark and gritty like the maestro of it, Joe Abercrombie. Writing for the YA crowd, this book (first in a trilogy) tones down many of the brutal elements that made his other books so bloody awesome, but as a whole Half a King delivers on what it promises: a coming of age adventure with complex heroes, complex villains, set in an uncaring and callas world where friends are really your enemies and enemies not your friends. As you find out again and again, the world is unforgiving and uncaring, especially if you’re the hero of a Joe Abercrombie novel. And that folks is half the fun of reading it.
Jon Snow: The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler. The more I think about it the more Half a King shouldn’t even really be classed as YA. I never felt that he was a young teenager going about and learning about the world. Removing swearing and sex does not a YA book makes. Therefore mine goes to The Forbidden Library. As I’ve said, it is more like a new age Alice in Wonderland. I like how the “magic” worked in this book and I look forward to the sequel.
Ben: The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan. Violence is the trademark of any Richard Morgan novel. His Takeshi Kovacs novels (science fiction) were brutal and violent. And his fantasy trilogy A Land Fit for Heroes is even MORE violent — and I didn’t think that was possible, since Morgan has made his writing name of sorts as a man who writes brutality right. Let’s just say if you want brutal torture scenes, unrestrained graphic violence, death by the scores, and murder by sword or vicious sorcery, The Dark Defiles won’t fail to deliver every single one of these. Multiple times. Read this book and you’ll want to take a shower after. But hey, it’s completely worth it.
Runners Up: The Barrow, Veil of the Deserters, The Crimson Campaign, The Mirror Empire
Ben: Hidden by Benedict Jacka. Move over Dresden, Jacka is here to steal your crown. The Dresden Files has started to grow stale. While many of you no doubt still love Butcher’s brand of urban fantasy, the characters have mostly remained static (not to mention no one ever seems to die), and the books are becoming more and more bogged down the requisite cameo appearances by every side kick character ever created over the course of the long series.
No, if you want a darker version of Dresden where the hero can’t just pull some new god-like power out of his had to save the day again, then look to the Alex Verus series by Jacka. Five books strong now, the author has only gotten better with the latest in the series, Hidden, the best so far. Hands down my pick fro the best ‘paranormal detective style urban fantasy’.
Runner Up: Sleeping Late for Judgement Day by Tad Williams
With grimdark being more common in 2014 than Justin Bieber getting arrested, this is a competitive category indeed. In the end, there was a fierce competition between Morgan’s The Dark Defiles and Veil of the Deserters, in the end, I give this one to Veil of the Deserters.
Last year’s book Scourge of the Betrayers (which I only ended up reading LATE this year to my chagrin), shocked me with how good it was. I had been hearing some good things about a new author who’s doing good things writing n Abercrombie-style fantasy, so I checked out the Scourge of the Betrayers. And wow, the book was shockingly good – like really shockingly good. I’d label it one of the best 2013 books I’ve read in 2014.
The characters were all nuanced and highly developed – especially the mysterious captain (the real show stealer of the book), the relentless action, when it occurs, realistically brutal, and the world one hell of a stark and depressing place to linger in. Salyards has no qualms with axing main characters too: characters you think are part of the main story end up dying horrible deaths out of the blue. It creates a sense of unpredictability to the story, which makes it all the more enticing.
Man, this is one hell of monstrously brutal book, but oh so compelling. The writing is good, very good with the haunted Captain particularly stealing the show with his measured and sophisticated (almost theatrical in tone and style) speech that juxtaposes the absurdity of a literate and intelligent man who is at the same time an amoral, selfish killer. Deep things indeed.
The author’s style of fantasy seemed a solid combination of Abercrombie’s wit and dialog, Glen Cook’s style of detailed military fantasy (not to mention both works feature chroniclers who tell the story in first person), with Mark Lawrence’s style of anti-hero development thrown in. It’s a style I found perfectly suited for this tale as the author pretty much combines all three of these types of grimdark into a single, unified story.
The sequel, Veil of the Deserters, is better in every way than the first – and we know how rare it is for sequels to outdo outstanding debuts. But Salyards does it, and definitively does so, setting the bar even higher for a third book (which I don’t think can top the second).
So if you haven’t read this author’s work, you are missing out on some of the best new fantasy in the genre, grimdark or no.
Runners Up: The Dark Defiles, The Crimson Campaign, The Barrow,
It’s uncommon to see a real stand alone released in the genre these days — every book coming out is yet again, part of a series — either a sequel or a the first. I mean, we get it, it’s easier to tell an overarching story if you plan out a grand story that spans multiple books. And of course, the financial incentive is there.
But, it’s also much more difficult to write a stand alone book then a book that’s part of a series. It’s certainly not easy to do. This year, there was one definite standout fantasy book NOT part of a series: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. This book stands as not only a wonderful stand alone tale but also one of the best fantasy stories to come out in 2014, period!
Truth be told, I was not expecting this book to be as good as it was. The title did little to inspire my confidence. Yet another Tolkien ripoff right? Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Goblin Emperor proved to be a wonderfully compelling story. It just hits on all the right notes perfectly with the setting so lavish so unique, and so well drawn with a protagonist you love who pulls on all the right heart strings. After reading scores of brutal grimdarks this year — and suffering a mild bout of depression because of it — the happier feel to this tale was just a real dose of oxygen to a drowning man.
For a more classic fantasy tale that will bring a smile to your lips — and one that doesn’t require thousands of pages and multiple volumes to finish– the Goblin Emperor is a must read. A stand out fantasy tale and the best stand alone fantasy of 2014.
That voice. He brings real life into the characters when he speaks. Michael Kramer is the man with the voice. If at all possible, toss the book out the window and LISTEN to the audio-book. The world will come alive in a whole new way.
Special mention here to the Veil of the Deserters, another outstanding audio book with the very talented narrator who brings the story completely to life. The voice of the captain, particular, is pitch perfect in tone and cadence and an example of a good narrator bring a book and character more fully into reality.
Red Rising, another outstanding audio book listen — a combination of the perfect narrator and perfect story unifying into the best tale of 2014. Don’t even consider reading it IF you get your hand on the audio book.
Runners Up: Veil of the Deserters, The Boy with a Porcelain Blade, The Barrow, Slow Regard of Silent Things, Red Rising, The Dark Defiles
This award is not necessary about fighting and violence but a fast moving plot where events happen fast and furious. Action, adventure, and swordplay extreme. For a fun, lighter read, with lots of action, chases, and grand fun adventure, Traitor’s Blades is the best book you read this year. It’s a less complicated tale than many of the other fantasy you’ll read, but that’s exactly what you want this book to be: uncomplicated, romantic swashbuckling adventure.
Runner Up: Sworn in Steel, Veil of the Deserters, The Barrow, The Dark Defiles, Words of Radiance, Skin Game, The Crimson Campaign, The Fell Sword, Breach Zone by Myke Cole
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!